Saturday, November 29, 2008

A pilgrimage to Auschwitz

It felt entirely appropriate getting to Auschwitz by train. My slow rattler was taking two hours to get me just 65km from Krakow to the town of Oswiecim. The cold snowy November weather merely added to the terrible sense of identification I was channelling as the train seemed to plough through the whitened fields. But it was superficial identification. For one, I had a view – something which would have been denied the hundreds of thousands who made the fateful journey in the war years - secondly I was here voluntarily, and thirdly I had a return ticket; again a luxury denied those doomed to take this journey in the 1940s.

It seemed doubly shocking that such a place could lie in the shadow of beautiful and graceful Krakow. The former capital of Poland remained the centre of the country’s scientific, artistic and cultural life in the middle of the last century. The city also had a flourishing Jewish population. Yet as the capital of the so-called "general government" during the Nazi occupation (with governor-general Hans Frank setting up his headquarters in the city’s imposing Wawel Castle), it made perfect sense for the area to be the centre of Hitler’s plans for a Final Solution to the “Jewish problem”.

The unassuming nearby town of Oswiecim was perhaps an appropriately grisly choice to house a German death camp. Prior to the war, it had a thriving Jewish population of its own – they even formed the majority of the town. They were a largely Yiddish speaking people who called the town by its German name Auschwitz. The outskirts of the town also held an old Polish brick barracks which was expropriated by the Nazis during the invasion in 1939. Initially the Germans were just looking for a place to store political prisoners and about 700 Polish intellectuals and resistance movement members were interned there in June 1940.

But gradually the scope of Auschwitz increased. There were a small number of Jews in the initial shipment, but it didn’t take long for their numbers to increase. Then came other undesirables and enemies of the Reich - the Communists, the disabled, the homosexuals, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the “gypsies”. This word gypsy (Zigeuner in German, which is why they were identified by the letter "Z") was a pejorative word for a people that in central Europe were known as Sinti and in South East Europe known as Roma. Possibly half a million Sinti and Roma perished in the death camps. The Sinti and Roma exhibition in Auschwitz I is one of the harrowing highlights of the visit.

Above the entrance to the camp is the infamous sign “Arbeit Macht Frei”. In 1872 the German novelist Lorenz Diefenbach used the phrase (roughly translated as “work liberates”) as the title of a novel and it was successfully adopted by the 1920s Weimar government to promote their public works program. The Nazis knew a good thing when they saw it and continued to use the phrase in their propaganda program. The commander of Dachau ordered it to be put on the entrance gate to his concentration camp and it was repeated at Sachsenhausen, Terezin, and most notably, at Auschwitz. Here prisoners walked under the gate, accompanied by the strains of a Jewish orchestra.

But not many Jews had this experience. Auschwitz was too small to cope with the growing number of prisoners. The Wannsee Conference had authorised the Final Solution and Germany needed a bigger and more efficient camp to process the vast numbers involved. In 1941, they built Auschwitz II in the woods some three kilometres away in a place the Poles called Brzezinka and the Germans translated as Birkenau. This was a vast emporium of death. No orchestras here, nor any pretence of “Arbeit Macht Frei”. Here, a massive tower overlooked the main gate and the railway tracks led straight to the gas ovens at the far end of the camp.

Auschwitz II was a massive operation and the largest of all the Nazi death camps. Most of the killing, torture, and medical experiments took place here. Cattle cars unloaded their cargo and those lucky enough to be selected not to die immediately were sent to one of the camps to work as slave labourers. These “lucky ones” merely had their fate postponed to overwork, hunger, sickness and a slow lingering death. But the vast majority were sent straight to the gas chambers. Four crematoria fuelled by the hydrogen cyanide insecticide known as Zyklon (Cyclone) B efficiently murdered 20,000 people each day. Evidence of the vast numbers involved is retained in the museum. Behind one glass exhibit are a vast collection of 20,000 pairs of shoes, yet this barely represents one day of gassing. There are also masses of suitcases, spectacles, human hair and other poignant reminders of the daily lives of the hundreds of thousands who died here.

By January 1945, the Red Army were closing in on the camp. Himmler ordered the camp to be destroyed and sent 60,000 survivors on a mid-Winter death march back to the Reich. Only 20,000 survived. Another 7,500 too weak to march were left behind at Auschwitz and liberated by the Russians. At least 1.5 million died (other estimates are as high as 5 million) in the camps themselves, the vast majority at Auschwitz II.

The word “Auschwitz” continues to be synonymous with the Shoah as a whole. It remains newsworthy on an almost daily basis. This week for instance, The Scotsman told the story of how educational trips to Auschwitz were saved despite government cutbacks. Meanwhile Germany is pursuing the arrest of Holocaust denier Gerald Frederick Tobin who argued the Auschwitz death camp was too small for the mass murder of Jews to have been carried out there. Across the pond, the Isthmus of Madison, Wisconsin reviewed Mark Herman’s “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” about the 8-year-old son of a German officer appointed the commandant of the camp, while the LA Times reported the death of 80 year old art dealer Jan Krugier who survived the camp and the subsequent death march. As for me, having spent several absorbing hours of tramping around these sacred grounds, I silently took the train back to Krakow thinking about the frailty of human reason.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Sikorski and me: a cryptic journey through Krakow

My hopes of seeing the crypt today at Krakow's Wawel Cathedral were dashed by world events. I had made it to freezing Krakow after an overnight nine hour train journey from Prague and I was eagerly looking forward too visiting the cathedral and castle on the acropolis at Wawel. But the cathedral crypt proved to be a no-go area.

I had wondered why there were so many TV cameras hovering around the cathedral grounds. It seems the body of General Wladyslaw Sikorski, the exiled Polish WWII prime minister, was exhumed from the crypt yesterday in an investigation into his death in 1943. He was now being reburied after an autopsy this morning. He certainly deserves a bit of peace. 65 years after his death, the poor chap was forced to undergo DNA analysis, computer tomography, radiology and toxicology tests. The results of the test will be announced in a few weeks time.

Władysław Eugeniusz Sikorski was the hero of the Polish-Soviet war of 1919-21 when the young Soviet Russia invaded Poland intent on taking revolution to the heart of Europe. Things were looked bad for the Polish until Sikorski masterminded the "Miracle of the Vistula" defeating a numerically and materially superior Russian army near Warsaw. Shortly after, the Russians sued for peace and abandoned the idea of international revolution. Sikorski and a young French instructor with the Polish army, a certain Charles de Gaulle, saw how lightning fast warfare would be the way of the future and were both instrumental in the new science of blitzkrieg.

Sikorski was rewarded for his efforts by becoming the Polish army chief of staff and served in the national government in the mid 1920s. He withdrew from politics after Poland became a dictatorship in 1926 and spent much of the next ten years in Paris. He returned prior to the war he predicted would occur but escaped to London after Poland was invaded (where the Germans showed they had been paying attention to Sikorski's blitzkrieg techniques). There he was appointed Prime Minister in exile and placed at the head of the large Polish army based in England. After the German invasion of Russia, Churchill sent Sikorski to negotiate with Stalin to reopen diplomatic relations. But Stalin wanted a piece of the Polish pie after the war and demanded unacceptable concessions.

In 1943, the German Wehrmacht discovered the mass grave of Katyń where the bodies of 4,500 Polish officers were piled up in several pits. The Soviets had killed the officers in 1940 after they had carved up Poland with the Germans. Radio Berlin gleefully reported the news in an attempt to put a wedge between the Russians and Polish. The wedge was successful. The Russians claimed the Nazis had carried out the killings in 1941 but Sikorski didn't believe them and wanted the matter investigated. The Russians used this as an excuse to break off diplomatic relations with Sikorski's government and Stalin campaigned for a Soviet-backed Polish government led by Wanda Wasilewska, a dedicated communist.

Sikorski was becoming a serious thorn in the side of the relationship between Britain and Russia. He was conveniently removed from the equation after he died in mysterious circumstances. On 4 July 1943, he was returning from an inspection of Polish forces deployed in the Middle East, when his plane crashed on take off into the sea off Gibraltar killing him and eight others (including his daughter). A British court of inquiry found no reason for the crash merely saying the "aircraft became uncontrollable for reasons which cannot be established". The files of the investigation were to be kept secret until 2050. In the absence of hard facts and the absurdly long secrecy requirement, conspiracy theories have abounded.

It didn't help when it was revealed a Soviet aircraft was parked next to Sikorski's unattended plane at Gibraltar. The head of M6 on the Rock at the time was Kim Philby, who would later be exposed as a Soviet spy. Security was casual in Gibraltar, by wartime standards. Sabotage was certainly possible and there was a strong motive. With the imposing Sikorski out of the way, it proved a lot easier to install a puppet pro-Soviet government in Warsaw once the war ended.

After his body was recovered from the Mediterranean, Sikorski was buried in a brick-lined grave at the Polish War Cemetery in Newark-on-Trent, England. In 1993, his remains were exhumed and transferred to the royal crypts at Wawel Castle. In July this year, Polish prosecutors announced they would reinvestigate the matter and the Archbishop of Krakow gave permission for Sikorski's body to be re-exhumed. "Given Sikorski's important role in Poland's history and having the tools and the know-how that we have now," said Ewa Koj, the prosecutor overseeing the investigation "we cannot let this remain a historical mystery." Good luck to them, at least the mystery why I couldn't see the crypt today has been solved.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Dubrovnik: Pearls of the Adriatic before swine

I landed in Dubrovnik after a short hop north up the coast from Kotor. While “The Pearl of the Adriatic” is a highlight of any trip, perhaps I was spoilt having coming from Montenegro’s fjord coast. I wouldn’t quiet go as far as saying I was underwhelmed. But yet I found myself preferring the understated appeal of Dubrovnik’s southern neighbour. Maybe it was the fact it was a Saturday and the old town was packed with day-trippers and visitors from the several parked cruise ships. Certainly the town looked a lot more attractive at night when all the tourists had gone and I had the old town to myself. And I had to be impressed by the magnificent rebuilding the town had undergone in the last 15 years.

Although the city was without military value, it was the victim of sustained attack during the Balkans War in the early 1990s. Serb mortars poured down from the hills while the Montenegrin Navy took potshots from the bay. Nearly two thirds of the city suffered bomb damage during the war. During the eight-month siege of Dubrovnik, about 100 civilians died and more than 30,000 fled their homes. Of the 824 buildings in the old town, almost 70 percent were struck by shells. Dubrovnik's walls sustained 111 direct hits and there were 314 more on Dubrovnik's baroque buildings and marble streets. UNESCO and other international organizations rushed to the rescue. Teams of skilled workers laboured through most of the rest of the decade to restore the town to its former glory.

The area around Dubrovnik was originally called Ragusium by the Romans. The town of Ragusa was formed in the seventh century when Byzantine coastal residents took refuge there to protect themselves from barbarian invasions. City walls were quickly built to protect the new settlement. Ragusa made its living from trade with its Mediterranean neighbours. Over the next 400 years Ragusa became increasingly prosperous and attracted unwelcome rival attention. In 1205 it fell under the control of Venice but it managed to break away 150 years later.

By the 15th century the Republic of Ragusa was trading with the Near East and Europe and a major rival of Venice for control of the Adriatic waterways. It maintained its independence from powerful neighbours through cunning diplomacy and used its wealth to expand its cultural influence. But the seeming inexorable progress of the town was cruelly destroyed in one act of nature.

In 1667, Dubrovnik was devastated by a major earthquake which destroyed most of its Renaissance art and architecture. After the earthquake, Dubrovnik fell into decline, hastened by the emergence of other European naval powers. It was Napoleon who finally put an end to the republic in 1806 when he entered the city and announced its annexation. In 1815, the Congress of Vienna ceded Dubrovnik to Austria to whom it remained attached until 1918. It passed into the hands of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes which renamed itself as Yugoslavia, before finally becoming Croatian after its horrible baptism of fire in 1991.

(pic shows the extent of damage to Dubrovnik during the war)

By then, Dubrovnik was a household name across the world. The city began to develop its tourist industry in the late 19th century. Luminaries such as Lord Byron, George Bernard Shaw and Agatha Christie were awed by the town and Dubrovnik became a major tourist centre in post-war Yugoslavia. Christie spent her second honeymoon here. GBS said “if you want to see heaven on Earth, come to Dubrovnik”.

The London Times would seem to agree. The city walls of Dubrovnik made their recent list of the world’s 50 best walks. It described the hour-long circuit of the old town’s battlements as unforgettable, as it was “around an Escher-like collection of sand-castle sentry posts, helter-skelter stairways and crumbling catwalks, all poised on high cliffs against the bluest bit of the Adriatic.” And having walked around the walks, I can see the point of this Adriatic pearl of wisdom.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Waiting in Sarajevo

I’m sitting in the Sarajevo bus station though it’s a train to Zagreb I’m catching in three hours time. It’s warmer here and you can sit down without having to buy something, unlike the train station which has plenty of cafes but nothing approximating a waiting room.

I don’t expect much sleep with a rattling night ahead. The train has got to be better than a bus though there’ll be a border crossing into Croatia around 3am to contend with, a process I'm becoming intimately familiar with. I’ve already had three goes with the Croatian authorities today. My bus left Dubrovnik early and we passed the string of islands that fill our ride up the coast before we hit the strange Neum corridor which is about 15km of Bosnian coastline and the country’s only access to the Adriatic.

The corridor was defaulted in 1699 by the Republic of Dubrovnik to the Ottomans in the Treaty of Karlowitz. The wealthy merchants of Dubrovnik were worried by the approach of the Venetians and were happy to have an Ottoman buffer between them. The corridor was inherited by Yugoslavia, and now the sovereign state of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Croatia places a passport check going in and out of the corridor but there is no Bosnian presence on either side. Nor it seemed were there any connecting roads with Sarajevo in the corridor. In the town of Neum itself where we stopped for coffee, the restaurant owner showed his colours with a Croatian scarf placed prominently on the bar and he accepted only Croatian money or euros.

I passed through Croatian borders a third time further north along the coastal plain where the Sarajevo road splits from the Split road. This time the Bosnians were on display complete with their national insignia. It was not far to the city of Mostar, though the winding road meant it took another hour. The journey was sensational through deep ravines alongside the rushing Neretva River surrounded by scrubby mountains on both sides. I was trigger happy with the camera for most of the way.

A funny thing happened in Mostar. I was hoping for a photo of the famous ‘stari most’ (old bridge), the symbol of the city which was destroyed by the Croatians in the 1993 war and subsequently meticulously rebuilt. There was no view of the bridge on the bus journey itself but I saw a sign pointing to it as we headed towards the bus station. When we got to the station, the bus driver turned off the engine and said words to the effect of ‘dieci minuti’ roughly translated that we had ten minutes here before we pulled out. I calculated it might be possible to run back to the river and catch a quick photo of the bridge. But as I started running from the station I began to think this was madness, it might be at least five minutes there and then I needed to get back again too.

I gave myself four minutes to get there. It took me almost exactly four minutes of full pelt run to get to the river. I eagerly peered over the bridge but there was no sign of the famous ‘stari most’ in either direction. I took photos anyway and realised I’d better rush back to the bus. Only on the way back did it occur to me that I might have been on the bridge itself, though from knowing its distinctive shape, I doubt it. It turned out the bridge was around a bend, and not visible from where I stood. But with the time ticking, I rushed back to the bus, puffing madly. To add insult to the injury of not finding the bridge, the bus driver waited the best part of 20 minutes anyway. As we pulled out, it was obvious there was another bridge the other side of the station that was even closer, no more than one minute walk away. Oh well, there’s a reason to return to Mostar some day.

(pic: The bridge I did not see in Mostar).

I made up for the disappointment with fabulous scenery shots elsewhere as the views got even better between Mostar and Sarajevo. Coming in to the capital, the views turned grim. The grey and closing weather didn’t help but any of the high Stalinist-looking flats could easily have hosted sniper alley. Thankfully the inner town was much nicer. I dropped my bags at the train station and walked along the river to the centre. It is a beautiful and ornate old town, very stately and grand. Most of the buildings have been rebuilt after the war.

I can see why Archduke Franz Ferdinand might have liked it here until he made it to the bridge where Serb nationalist Gavrilo Princip shot him in 1914, which knocked down several royal houses of cards and led to the death of millions in World War I. Oddly enough Sarajevo itself escaped any further damage in that war. However I can also see the result of the gunfire of more recent bouts of Serb nationalism. I pass several pock-marked and bullet-ridden buildings. The siege of Sarajevo lasted four years from 1992-1996 with Serb forces high on the hills taking pot shots at anything that moved below. I’m wondering whereabouts in the city is their entity, the mysterious Republika Srpska?

Friday, November 21, 2008

Kotor: Fjord Perfect

Kotor, Montenegro is that rarest of entities – a town on a Mediterranean fjord. Think of Norway or Milford Sound in New Zealand - only with added sunshine. Admittedly it's quite cloudy when I'm in the Bay of Kotor, but that is understandable for early winter. I’m staying five or six kilometres outside town in a village called Prcanj, having been talked into accepting a €15 room at a private home by a taxi driver at the unassuming Kotor bus station when I arrived this morning after a dazzling coastal 30 minute bus drive from Budva.

But the driver (who owns the house) was happy to take me back to the station tomorrow morning and I was happy to walk the distance today sans bags. He offered me some local firewater at his house which I turned down, preferring to stay sober in Kotor at 8am. He also offered me a lift back into town which I also refused. It was a lovely walk along the narrow road beside the fjord. At the station he told me it was “just 2 kilometres” but a road sign tells me Kotor’s “stari grad” (old town) is “8kms” away. Neither my landlord nor the Kotor council are right, it’s closer to 5km and it takes me just under an hour to make the trip around the bay.

Kotor is possibly the most stunning place I’ve stayed in two months of travel. I climbed the city walls 500m above the town to San Giovanni fortress. There has been a fortification on this site since the Byzantine emperor Justinian sent the Goths packing in 535AD. No visable Goths or Visigoths today or indeed any other sign of humanity. I was supposed to have paid €2 entry fee but there is no-one here to collect it. I have the entire mountain to myself.

At the top, I stare out towards the exit of the fjord though I cannot see the Adriatic from here hidden behind the tall mountains on either side of the fjord. The Montenegrin flag flies proudly from the top of the fortress. The water looks perfectly still and hardly a sound from the old city penetrates this far up. The flag has stopped fluttering as the wind has died down and all I can hear is the barking of distant dogs.

I climb back down to the old town which is beautifully preserved and full of young people. The town is proud of its nightlife and the city has a carnival atmosphere in summer. It is a lot quieter in November, but there are occasional echoes of Kotor notoriety. Everything happens under the watchful eye of Mount Lovcen.

Kotor’s heyday was the Middle Ages when it served as an important artistic and commercial centre. Called Cattaro, it was an independent republic from 1395 to 1420. From 1420 to 1797 Cattaro fell into the hands of Venice. The Venetian influence is evident in the architecture. By the treaty of Campo Formio in 1797 it was acquired by Austria. Then at the end of World War I, Kotor became part of Yugoslavia, where it remained (apart from brief Italian hegemony during WWII) until the country’s breakup in 1992.

Many of Kotor’s monuments including the fortress were badly damaged by the devastating 1979 earthquake, which measured eight on the Richter scale. Kotor’s old town was restored with UNESCO help. But Montenegro is no longer impoverished and the country is making rapid strides towards western European standards, evident in Kotor’s more expensive shops.

Things are still cheap enough here generally though as more people discover this magnificent unspoilt coastline (and proceed to spoil it) that will change. Already the Hotel Splendido down the road charges €160 a night according to mine host, a local whose house has splendido fjord views of its own. Viva Cattora!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Full Montenegro

Having safely jumped the Albanian hurdle, it was time to check out the delights of Montenegro. I was in Ulcinq, the first town across the border. Immediately I felt a wealth that was not present in Shqipëria. Montenegro was seriously courting the EU and its money. Even at the border the flag flying was not the new red and yellow Montenegrin flag with its coat of arms of Nicola I (Montenegro’s only ever king whose reign was cut short by the end of World War I) but instead the blue EU flag with its 15 yellow stars. And the roads to the coast were being upgraded courtesy of Brussels’ grants too.

But the most noticeable marker of their ticket to prosperity is the currency. Montenegro switched from the DeutschMark to the Euro in 2002. On the switchover the Montenegrin government deliberately asked for as many small coins as possible so that shopkeepers would avoid the temptation to jack up prices and fuel inflation. That may have worked as an economic measure to begin with, but there is little doubt that Montenegro, while still relatively cheap, is quickly catching up with mainstream European prices.

Its efforts to go European are in marked contrast with its relationship with its most powerful neighbour and former ruler Serbia. Montenegro dissolved the union with Belgrade in 2006 after a referendum. There was a 55 percent threshold required and it was just passed with 55.5 percent voting in favour of full independence. Podgorica became the world’s newest capital city. But I gave Podgorica a miss. Nothing terribly much against it, and it is supposedly pretty enough by other accounts, but I wanted to stay on the coast and eventually get to Dubrovnik.

Ulcinq bus station would be my springboard. Ideally I wanted to get to Kotor, sited at the head of the Mediterranean’s only fjord. But there didn’t seem to be a bus for several hours. A German I’d met in the hostel in Tirana had recommended a closer town, Budva, as a nice place to visit too. Noticing there was a bus direct to Budva in an hour’s time, that was good enough incentive for me. I booked a ticket and sat down for a couple of very enjoyable local pivos (beers) while waiting.

When the bus got going we quickly headed to the coast and stayed there for the remainder of the trip. The scenery was gloriously spectacular. The mountains hugged the coast and roads peered over the Adriatic while dipping under cliffs. We zigzagged our way slowly north. I was happy to go slow as it meant more time to admire the view and take photographs. It was like driving Victoria’s Great Ocean Road, only complete with 14th century old towns every twenty or thirty kms (I wonder what Lorne will look like in 2508?) The bus stopped in several of these towns and a couple of times I was half tempted to get out and spend the night there on spec. It is little wonder that Montenegrin tourism is on the rise, the country is a hidden wonder.

After about 90 minutes, the bus arrived at Budva bus station. Next door was a tourist bureau where I asked was there any cheap and nearby accommodation in town. The well spoken lady there told me I could stay in a “private residence” for 12 euros. That was ok by me. All along the coast I had seen signs for "sobe/rooms/zimmer/camera" advertising in four languages the fact that rooms to rent in private homes were commonplace. The lady made a phone call and then told my landlady would be here in three minutes. Good, I thought, she can’t be driving too far. Even better still when she arrived, I discovered she had walked and I would be staying a handy three minutes from the bus station when I needed to leave in the morning,

The accommodation itself was pleasant. A small room with ensuite totally separate from the main entrance and just a ten minute walk to the ‘stari grad’ (old city). Budva is one of the oldest towns on the Adriatic with at least 2,500 years of continuous settlement. Its old town is not quite of that vintage but was built by the Venetians in the Middle Ages. Venice grew wealthy on trade and acquired a network of cities on the Dalmatian coast from the Hungarians who were devastated by civil war.

Budva is reliant on the old town and nearby beaches to bring in the tourists. The city has expanded drastically in the 1990s and many locals have become cashed up by selling their properties to wealthy British, Irish and Russian citizens. Russians first came to Budva looking for bargains after the end of the Balkan Wars in the 1990s and they have kept coming. The local mayor Lazar Radenovic told the New York Times Russians were attracted to the Balkans by a cultural connection stretching back to the 18th century. Serbia and Montenegro share a Slavic Orthodox identity with Russia. “When Russians come here,” he said, “they don’t feel like we have crossed over the border.”

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

trying to tour Tirana to Ulcinq

It's time to leave Albania. There are decent bus connections out of Tirana to all of the countries Albania shares a border with - except one. That one is the recently independent Montenegro, on the coast directly north. And that’s annoying because that is where I want to go next. The two nations are not on the best neighbourly terms, for reasons I have yet to fathom. However, from scattergun research, I believe it is possible to get across the border from the northern city of Shkodra.

Supposedly, I read, there are buses there that meet the “furgons” from Tirana. Every country around the eastern Med has its own word for minibus. Turks make do with “dolmus” while you need to take a “sherut” to get around in Israel. Here in Albania, its a "furgon". A furgon is simply a van with eight to ten seats that doesn’t set off for its destination until every seat is full. Because of this, a set arrival time is no furgon conclusion and I’m happy to take a proper coach to Shkodra which gets me in at 10am. I’m hoping then that somehow I will be able to find the bus to Ulcinq (the first town across the border in Montenegro).

This is easier said than done as Albania does not believe in bus stations, and you have to be aware of where people congregate which is often at makeshift shelters. The other problem I have is conflicting information. One source tells me there are supposedly two or three buses a day to Ulcinq though I read elsewhere there is only one, and that leaves at 9am, worryingly an hour before I am due to arrive. And I don’t really want to stay in Ulcinq itself as there is not much there, but I might have to if I get there late.

The following morning I set off from Tirana. Encouragingly the bus leaves on time at 8am. It is barely 80km between Albania’s two largest cities but the journey takes two hours on crowded and narrow two-lane roads. But it eventually arrives in the centre of Shkodra at 10am. I ask the driver where I might find a bus to Montenegro. He grunts and points in the direction of a large hotel on the other side of the busy square where we park.

But I am barely half way across the road when I’m accosted by a taxi driver who speaks English.
“Montenegro?” he said, “Ulcinq?”
Maybe, I replied hesitantly, clearly unnerved by his prescience.
“I take you there for 30 euro”. This is at least four or five times the price of the bus there.
I shake my head and say “No, I’ll take the bus”.
“Bus is gone,” he said. “9 o'clock”.
“But there must be another one later today?”
"No", he replied, "not till 9 tomorrow”.

I was not sure whether to believe him but his words did tally with the more pessimistic information I’d received the day before. And even if there was a second bus, it was likely not to being going until late afternoon. Then there is problem of actually proving there was a second bus with little or no customer information available. At least this guy could get me over the border quickly and I had a chance of getting on to one of the nicer Montenegrin places like Budva or Kotor tonight. So I tried haggling.
“20 euros,” I said.
“no, no, 30” he insisted.
So I started to walk on towards the hotel.
This has a reaction. “25 euros, lowest price”, he said. I think about this some more and finally accept the 25 euro fare. The advantages outweigh the expensive disadvantage and the uncertainty of the bus.

And so we set out for Montenegro. The first obstacle was the long single lane bridge over the river that leads north out of Shkodra. From here there were signposts telling the distance to all points north including Dubrovnik, Belgrade and even Vienna, some 1,200kms away. But never mind Vienna, it was proving difficult enough to get one kilometre out of town. The rule of this particularly road was whoever got to the halfway point of the bridge first had right of way. The loser had to reverse all the way back to the side he or she came from. It can become hairy when drivers on both side put the pedal down in that elusive race to get to the middle first. My driver failed on the first attempt and swore profusely in Albanian, but otherwise accepted the outcome as he reversed back muttering darkly all the while.

The second attempt was more promising and he easily made the middle ground first and even got two-thirds of the way across when confronted with the other driver. But hold on, the other driver and the driver behind her got out to remonstrate with my driver and after much shouting and gesticulating it seemed somehow they won. There was even more swearing and a shrug of the shoulders. “Ach, Albania!” he said to be me as he reversed back once more. I just smiled back. I didn’t understand why it was still his obligation to reverse until the two cars came across and one was towing the other. So normal reversing rules could not apply.

At the third attempt, my swearing Albanian made it over the river, sending another non-towing car reversing back to the opposite side. I was then surprised how quickly we made it to the border, it was only about 5 or 6kms away. At the border the driver unscrewed his Albanian taxi sign and had to cough up five euros to get into Montenegro. It cost me nothing with my EU passport.

We quickly made it on another 15km to Ulcinq bus station where I thanked him and handed over the 25 euros we’d agreed. But he wanted more. “Border visa“ he said, darkly. “Five euro”. Ah, I didn’t look at the fine print of the contract, it seemed I would have to pay his visa and he would get his 30 euro after all. I wasn’t happy but he agreed to accept the balance out of my otherwise worthless collection of Albanian leks, which, given the testy relations between the two countries, probably would have been too difficult to exchange anyway. I gave him the money and sent back to his Shkodra bridge race. I was now at a real bus station, with real information and hopefully a real timetable that would see me end up in Budva or Kotor for the night.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Talking Tirana

Having established myself for the night at Pedro’s gracious accommodation, it was time to discover Tirana. The city lies in the shadow of Mount Djat and is a surprisingly neat and well laid out town with plenty of colourful architecture to admire. The capital of Albania is an oddball city, typically post-Communist and full of contradictions. Beggars line the streets next to a bevy of Mercedes (Albania’s most popular car, all smuggled across the border from Montenegro). A good meal and a beer can be had for $3 next door to a $US3000 a night hotel. Garish casinos are sited next to Stalinist government buildings that look like local versions of an Orwellian Ministry of Truth.

Outside the museum is a heroic mural that is supposedly a panoply of Albanian history. Ancients with shields and swords stand side by side with 20th century peasants and thinkers while farmhands with raised fists march forward towards independence or EU subsidies, depending on one’s imagination. In the centre of the painting, a white dressed woman holds aloft a rifle while her male companion waves the Albanian flag. It’s not hard to guess who wears the trousers in that revolutionary relationship.

Inside the museum, exhibits tell the story of Albania from Neolithic to modern times. It was always an important stomping ground on the way south or north through the Adriatic coast, though its many mountains made it mostly fiercely impenetrable. The Illyrians established a capital in the northern city of Shkodra and ruled until they were knocked off their perch by the Romans. Then known as the province of Epirus Nova, Albania remained in Roman hands for six centuries. It was inherited by the Byzantines and the Ottomans and remained an important but externally governed province until the 20th century. That was apart from the brief interlude in the 15th century when the “Dragon of Albania”, Gjergj Kastrioti Skanderbeg, successfully held off the Ottomans for 20 years. Skanderbeg is the nation’s greatest hero and his impressive statue dominates the square named for him in the centre of Tirana.

In 1912 Albania gained independence as the Ottoman Empire collapsed amid the Balkan wars. Its neighbours did not take kindly to this and a coalition of Christian forces from Montenegro, Serbia and Greece launched a war against the new entity. Albania was formally recognised as a nation after the second Balkan War a year later.

Founded in the 17th century, Tirana is a relatively young city by Albanian standards. It was not until 1920 that it became the capital. It wasn’t an easy time for the citizens of Tirana. For four years the city was pounded by the Serbian army and forces loyal to ousted Prime Minister Ahmet Zogu who was later to give himself royal delusions as King Zog I. Zog was a lucky, if hated, man. He survived no less than 55 assassination attempts including one time where he returned fire at his would-be killers. But having been supported by Mussolini, the Italians demanded more power and when Zog refused, Il Duce’s forces invaded and forced Zog into exile.

In World War II Mussolini used Albania as his launching pad to attack Greece. When that ended badly, the Germans took over in both countries. A local resistance organisation grew to defend Albania from the Italians and then Germany. Led by the French-educated Enver Hoxha, the resistance movement was extraordinarily successful and overthrew the German regime without Soviet support. Albania also protected its Jews and was the only country in Europe to have more Jews at the end of the war than it had at the beginning.

Hoxha had also supported the Yugoslav resistance and was helped into post-war power by a grateful Tito. He instituted his own form of Communism but Albania gradually became more isolated as Hoxha accused Yugoslavia of interference. He would lead the nation until his death in 1985. He became increasingly weird the older he got. He built 750,000 bunkers across the country in case of war. He banned beards. In 1978 his Code of Lekë made women property of their husbands stating: A woman is known as a sack, made to endure as long as she lives in her husband's house.

The fate of women and sacks remained precarious through the uncertain times of the late 1980s. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the country made cautious moves towards reform. The Communists were routed in elections. Albania, like many of its neighbours, is now dealing with life as a full tilt capitalist country. The currency is still the lek, though the euro is accepted in many places. Tirana remains a very cheap city though as it works out how to attract tourists, that will quickly change. For now Tirana, like Albania as a whole, is in transition. The old certainties are gone - though perhaps nothing was certain under the unstable Hoxha.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Entering Shqipëria

My first test in Albania was the toilets. The overnight bus from Athens had crossed the border an hour ago and the driver decided to stop at a mountain inn for refreshments. Sixty minutes of heavily potholed roads had left me in need of bathroom and I dragged myself off the bus to find the facilities. It was freezing cold outside, a shock to the system after the warmth of Greece and the Middle East.

I found the toilets easily enough, the problem was the choice. There were two doors; one marked “burra” and one marked “gra”. But which was I – a burra or a gra? There was no symbol to go with the words that might have helped. Burra sounded a bit like boy or brother but I had no faith in such transliteration of the Albanian language.

I knew full well the trap the unwary fall into in Ireland when confronted with the anagrammatically upsetting “mná” (women) and the feminine sounding “fir” (men). So I stealthily opened the door marked “burra” and peered inside. The lights were off and there were no, ahem, distinguishing features inside. I hesitated further only to finally have blushes spared as a man from the bus behind me marched confidently through the “burra” door. Aha, I’m a burra, bro!

I certainly needed the toilet. We were still some hours away from Tirana. Albania may be a small country but the multitude of mountains and the poor quality of the roads make for slow travel. The six-lane (I initially typed this as six-land, clearly affected by travel) motorways that took us north from Athens are a distant dream, though dreaming was a rare commodity as I did not get much sleep in the 14 hour trip.

It had been a long day. This particular day actually started at 2.30am two countries and two days ago. My flight out of Tel Aviv was at 7am but I knew I needed to allow three hours to get through tight Israeli security. Wanting to save a cab fare, I walked 40 minutes to get the train to the airport; hence the 2.30am alarm start. I stayed the night in a Tel Aviv hostel and there wasn’t much sleep beforehand anyway as my mostly Israeli roommates were in a mood for conversation until midnight.

I got about two and half hours sleep and got up again. I had done the walk earlier so I knew where I was going but this time it was with wheelie luggage. Today was the day I regretted not going the backpack. The pain was forgotten at the train station and the search there was light by Israeli standards. A sleek train got me to Ben Gurion on time.

I got through the fine tooth comb checks of Israeli airport security with stoic and bleary-eyed indifference and reading before we finally boarded the flight. We landed in Athens two hours later where the immigration policeman barely glanced at my passport. He would never get a job at Ben Gurion.

In Athens I knew from previous experience where to seek out the Albanian bus lines. And so for €35, I was booked onto the bus to Tirana leaving at 6pm. I busied myself with a day of ancient Athenian antiquities before we finally got underway. I was the only non-Albanian on the bus. The other passengers quickly got through passport control at the border into Shqipëria (what the locals prefer to call Albania). I was held up with paperwork but was finally given a visa for the princely sum of €1 (it had been reduced from €10 at the start of 2008, presumably to encourage more tourism).

The bus finally got into Tirana at what I thought was 8am. Except, it turned out to be 7am. Only later did I find out we moved into Central European Time when we crossed the border. I wanted to stay at the recently opened Tirana Backpackers Hostel which had gotten some good reviews on the internet. I didn’t have a map of Tirana but I had an address “85 Rruga Elbasanit” (Rruga means street in Albanian) and the knowledge that it was reasonably central. So when the bus finally reached Tirana, I went up to the bus driver and said “Rruga Elbasanit?” in my most inquisitive voice. He made a grunty hand signal that amounted to “straight ahead, then veer left”.

I asked several more people along the way. All bar one kept me going in the same direction (the odd man out must have misheard me as he tried to send me back in the direction of the bus). I walked through Tirana’s main square, named for its 15th century nationalistic hero Skanderbeg (and whose statue prominently adorns the square) before finally veering left as promised. It didn’t help that Tirana didn’t seem to bother with signs for street names or street numbers. But I kept faith in the pointing and my constant questioning refrain of Rruga Elbasanit. I kept rolling those first two r's whether I was supposed to or not) and kept asking. Sure enough after about my tenth or 12th victim, I was in Rruga Elbasanit. Before too long I found the hostel at number 85. There I was greeted by a friendly bearded Swiss gentleman named Pedro who made me feel quite at home. I had a feeling I was going to like Tirana.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Israeli mayoral elections tomorrow

Israel prepares for its general election next February with municipal and mayoral elections to be held throughout the country tomorrow. Jerusalem, the largest city, is the flashpoint and the race has highlighted religious rifts splitting the city and, by extension, the entire country. Although the major parties do not contest mayoral elections, the vote will give some indication of the thinking in advance of the national poll.

The two leading contenders for the job are ultra-Orthodox rabbi, Meir Porush, 53, and Nir Barkat, 49, a moderate city councillor and high-tech entrepreneur. Neither is likely to win the race outright and will rely on middle ground. Shmuel Sandler, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv, said the contest has become a culture war and a battle between secular and religious forces. There could be a backlash by voters against religious parties in the countrywide ballot if Porush wins, Sandler said.

Porush has asked not to be judged by the length of his beard but there is little doubt he plans to promote an ultra-religious agenda if elected. Last week he stirred the pot by saying no Israeli city would have a secular mayor within 10 to 15 years. While his speech was delivered in Yiddish and intended for a private audience of supporters, they were taped and shown on TV news with Hebrew subtitles. "We are growing and multiplying at a fast pace,” he said. “Within 10 years there will not be a secular candidate at all in any city, except maybe in an abandoned village.”

If this wasn’t enough to worry people in secular neighbourhoods, they are also concerned their areas have been encroached in recent years by the ultra-Orthodox. Pnina Dadon told The Guardian her west Jerusalem district has seen a steady increase in synagogues and religious kindergartens. The original inhabitants are moving out. "The secular people are running away, especially the young. They just don't feel comfortable any more," said Dadon. "It's not that I hate them. It's just that I want my freedom."

But the campaign of secular candidate Nir Barkat is not without its issues either. His concern, similar to Dadon’s, is young people fleeing the capital in greater numbers. His plan is to build thousands of new apartments in East Jerusalem, which Israel occupied after the 1967 Six Day War and later annexed. Such settlements would not win Israel any friends internationally and would present further obstacles to peace with the Palestinians. But Barkat is not fussed by international opinion. "The young people are leaving Jerusalem," he says. "This is a real danger to Jerusalem's future and causes a decline in the general standard of living in the city."

The third candidate in the Jerusalem election is the Russian-born wildcard billionaire Arcady Gaydamak who is attempted to court the Arab vote. This will be difficult as the elections are a purely Jewish affair. Most Palestinian residents, who make up almost a third of the city's 700,000 population, are expected to boycott the election as they have done since Israel conquered East Jerusalem in 1967. "Our religious and national positions on the issue are clear,” said Mohammed Hussein, mufti of Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories. “They forbid participation as a voter or a candidate in these elections for an authority that represents the Israeli occupation.”

But Jerusalem activist Akram Salhab disagrees with this strategy. He says the boycott is an example of “the lazy thinking” dominating the Palestinian political scene. He says real gains are sacrificed to maintain a purely symbolic boycott that doesn’t achieve anything for the Arab population. Despite having 30 percent of the population, they only receive about 10 percent of council funding. “In the blink of an eye you are transported from a modern, well maintained high street with neatly painted red and white curbs, to a pot-hole ridden road from somewhere in the third world,” he says.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Aleppo citadels and carpets

Aleppo is one of the oldest cities in the world. There is evidence of continued occupation in this part of Syria dating back to 5000BC. Some of the crumbling streets look that old and are in need of serious attention. It was also a city that looked labyrinthine and I would need assistance to get around. I asked the guy who ran my fleabag hotel where I could get a map. He didn’t understand me so he walked me to the shop next door where the owner translated my question. He pointed down the road to the tourist police office.

There I was helped by a young, tall and smiling man whose slightly oily appearance somehow reminded me of Franz Kafka. His English wasn’t great but he wanted to be friendly. He was also inquisitive. What is your work? He asked. I said computers. He then asked for my email address “in case I have question about computers.” Feeling a bit dodgy about this request, I gave him a fake address. But perhaps I needn’t have been suspicious. He told me the citadel wasn’t very far away. He gave me a map, a thick book about Syria and walked me around the corner to the ATM (It didn’t work for me, but that was hardly his fault). I wanted to be quickly away from the scene of my “crime” in case he quickly emailed and got an “address not known” response.

The map wasn’t easy to interpret and none of the streets had English transliterations of their Arabic names. I walked in the direction of what I assumed to be the citadel only to realise I was completely wrong when I got as far as what was the main football stadium. I knew the 50m high citadel dominated the landscape but I couldn’t see it anywhere. Finally after a half hour of wondering through nondescript streets the mammoth structure came into view.

There have been castles of some sort on the site for 5,000 years. The prophet Abraham is said to have milked his sheep on the citadel hill. But warfare and earthquakes have long since taken care of whatever castle Abraham saw and the present structure dates from around the 13th century. There was just one entrance a 16th century fortified gateway, added by the Egyptian Mamlukes, and accessible only by an arched bridge.

The road to it was a maze through the old city. I went in through the Bab Antakya (Antioch Gate) which protected the city from the west. Once inside I passed through the long and winding covered souk that led to the citadel. Halfway through, I was approached by an eager merchant. "Hello, where you from, what’s your name?" he asked. I made the mistake of telling my details (luckily he did not ask for an email address). "Ah you come visit my shop, and see my rugs. I am mentioned in all the guide books. I am in Lonely Planet". I told him I was on my way to the citadel. “Ah, it is closed today, holiday. Come visit my shop.” I said I might visit his shop after I had checked out for myself whether the citadel was shut. After a few more protestations, I finally got rid of him. A few more sellers came up asking my name and where I was from. This time I steadfastly stayed true to my purpose and refused to communicate with any of them.

But Mr Lonely Planet was right – the citadel was closed. Though it was a Tuesday, it was a “holiday” of some sort. The doors on the arched bridge were firmly shut. But even closed, it looked impressive. It was an elliptical structure with stone walls 50m high and a 100m wide. The base had of almost half a kilometre and a width of 325m. It took a good 15 minutes to walk a loop of the base. The large moat surrounding the citadel was a defacto tip for Aleppo and strewn with rocks, household and street rubbish. Deep inside the moat was a boy, no older than ten, driving a bulldozer (perhaps legitimately, but in Syria you can never tell).

“Hey, my Ireland friend!” My reverie was rudely interrupted. Mr Lonely Planet had found me again. “You must come now and see my shop, I have wonderful carpets, very cheap!” I had to be very firm and tell him I wasn’t interested in carpets, however cheap. I fled the scene and walked rapidly back through the covered souk avoiding all eye contact with anyone who looked like they were about to offer me the deal of the century.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Israel proceeds towards its own election

Israel has reacted cautiously to Barack Obama’s victory in the US presidential overnight. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said her country hoped the president-elect would maintain US friendship with Israel and a commitment to peace talks. She called Obama's election win "a mark of merit for American democracy." Israel has also hailed the announcement Obama has appointed Jewish former Clinton aide Rahn Emanuel as chief-of-staff. However with its own parliamentary election due early next year, Israeli politicians are wondering what impact he will have on the Middle East.

Livni is hoping to emulate Obama’s success in that election. In September she was narrowly elected leader of the ruling Kadima party edging past main rival, Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, by one percentage point replacing scandal-ridden Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Livni’s hopes of becoming immediate Prime Minister were dashed by the refusal of coalition parties to work with the new Government, leaving Kadima little choice but to call an election. As a result Olmert continues to lead a transitional government until the election on 10 February. This is because of a law the Knesset must wait 21 days until it officially declares that general elections will be held within 90 days. The ultra-Orthodox Shas party said it would not join a Livni coalition, citing differences over the future of Jerusalem in the peace talks with the Palestinian Authority, and its demand for increased welfare benefits.

Livni labelled her former coalition partners’ demands for continued power-sharing “extortion” and said she would not “pawn Israel’s future for the prime minister’s chair”. Livni told President Shimon Peres she had done everything she could to put together a parliamentary coalition. She said other parties preferred elections. "If everyone agrees that elections are in order," she told Peres, "then we must do it quickly." She is hoping to become Israel’s first female Prime Minister since Golda Meir 30 years ago.

Tzipi Livni was born 50 years ago in Tel Aviv of a Polish father and an Israeli mother. After finishing compulsory military service she worked for Mossad before resigning to finish a law degree. She spent 10 years practicing law specialising in public and commercial law before being elected to the Knesset as a Likud member in 1999. She joined the ministry two years later under Ariel Sharon and worked her way up to Minister of Justice by 2005. When Sharon left Likud to form Kadima, Lipni went too and became second in line to succeed him after Olmert.

The current political impasse is hampering efforts to make progress on the Palestinian settlements. Outgoing US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with top Israeli and Palestinian negotiators this week to discuss the faltering Annapolis peace process. According to Barry Rubin, an international affairs and terrorism specialist at Global Research in International Affairs Centre (Gloria) in Israel, Livni wants to use the talks to demonstrate to voters that they should elect her as the country's next prime minister because she is for peace.

However her bid to become Prime Minister could be thwarted by the return of Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu who is leading in the polls. He was also at yesterday’s meeting with Rice and intends to adopt a new peace model should he be elected prime minister. Netanyahu told Rice his model would combine diplomatic peace with economic peace, coupled with "accelerated development." He stressed the peace model would be premised on improvement on the grassroots level and then move to leadership level. However, Netanyahu’s track record as former Prime Minister is not impressive in peace talks. He is a hawk and would not be trusted by any of the Arab participants. The more moderate Lipni would be a better bet for peace, but will Israeli voters give her the chance?

Saturday, November 08, 2008


A new musical opening in the West End is causing controversy for its subject matter – life in the wartime Jewish Ghetto in Warsaw. The story is about a family of actors in the Ghetto who put on a play about the Jewish resistance against the Romans at Masada in 74AD. Many critics have raised eyebrows. The Lebrecht Weekly says “putting the Holocaust on stage is fraught with risks of moral trespass and want of verisimilitude”. However The Jewish Community Online says it is a clever plot twist to show an attempt to raise the morale of the ghetto community by staging a musical about Masada.

The history of the siege of Masada was noted by Josephus Flavius who also recorded the destruction of Jerusalem four years earlier in 70AD. The events were closely related as one led directly to the other. Flavius records that Masada was first fortified by Herod The Great who chose the site as his Winter Palace sometime in the 30s BC. Masada lay 450 metres above the Dead Sea on two strategic trade routes; to Moab in the south and Jerusalem in the north. After Herod died in 4BC, the Romans inherited the site and turned it into a garrison post.

Nothing changed until the Great Revolt by the Jews against the Romans in 66AD. One of the first actions of the revolt was the conquest of Masada by a militant Jewish group called the Sicarii (named for the curved Sica dagger they carried). The revolt spread to Jerusalem where it was brutally suppressed, leading to the destruction of Herod’s Temple and the enslavement of large parts of the population. Many fled to Masada which was the last rebel stronghold. The Romans sent the 10th Legion to end the siege and 8,000 soldiers staked out the cliffs in eight camps. The siege lasted several months until the Romans constructed a ramp. Over the ramp came a tower with a battering ram which they used to crush the walls. The relentless attack took its toll but rather than surrender, the Sicarii committed mass suicide of the 960 members of their community. The men drew lots to see who would have to do the awful deed to the others. Just two women and five children hiding in the cistern survived to tell their incredible story to the Romans.

I climbed up Masada earlier this week to see for myself the nature of its mystique. It is about an hour and a half south of Jerusalem by bus. The route descends out of the mountains that ring the city into the depths of the Dead Sea. We pass the Dead Sea resort of Ein Gedi; the “lowest place on Earth” according to one sign, before the towering cliff of Masada appears on the right.

There are two ways up the mountain from the east (there is also a Western route which is not connected by road and is an incredible 90 minutes drive away). While a cable car route was built in 1971 to provide mass transit for tourists, I prefer to walk the cheaper zigzag Snake Path up the side of the mountain. After all, this was the route that Herod and the Sicarii took to get there and if it was good enough for them, it is certainly good enough for me. The guide at the bottom told me it was 700 steps to the top and it would take 45 minutes. I did it in 30 minutes but I counted over 800 steps. Hot and sweaty at the top, I was stunned to see how big the complex was; it took up the entire plateau. The view, as I expected, was excellent with the entire vista of the Dead Sea and the mountains of Jordan beyond. Looking north was Qumran where in 1949 the Dead Sea Scrolls were found locked in the mountains.

Masada is a forbidding place. Situated on the eastern fringe of the Judean Desert, the cliffs are severe in every direction. The camp commander’s house overlooks the top of the Snake Path giving him a total view of everything that came and went from the fort. On the other side was the quarry which provided the durable dolomite used for the buildings of Masada. Behind lay Herod’s majestic Northern Palace. Built on three rock terraces, it gave the king solitude and some amazing views. His 29 storerooms held a mass of corn, an abundance of wine and what Josephus called “every variety of pulse and piles of dates.”

Lack of food would not be a problem in a siege. The palace was also geared to support Herod’s sumptuous tastes. He had his own sommelier, a special fish sauce imported from Spain and apple liqueur from Italy. There was also a bath-house, a banquet hall and a synagogue.

The Achilles heel was the fort's western side. Here next to a second palace that Herod built, the accent to the top was not as steep. In the Hebrew month of Nissan in the spring of either 73 or 74 AD, the Romans raised a tower high enough to overlook this part of the wall and bombarded the area. They then burned the wood and earth walls the rebels had built to shore up the outer walls. With defeat certain, the defenders killed themselves rather than submit to slavery. Josephus quotes their final acts: “It is very plain that we shall be taken within a day’s time, but it is still an eligible thing to die after a glorious manner, together with out dearest friends.”

A Roman auxiliary force occupied the fort for the next 200 years. After they finally left Masada, the site lay abandoned for centuries. The Byzantines established a monastery on the site until Palestine fell to the Muslims in the 7th century. Masada sank into oblivion until the 19th century. Archaeologists then began to uncover the old ruins. By the 1930s, Zionists saw the possibilities of the symbolism of the old fort and began to revere Masada as a sacred Jewish site. The Snake Path was discovered in 1953 and Masada National Park established in 1966. UNESCO instituted the site as a world heritage area in 1991 saying the “camps, fortifications and attack ramp that encircle the monument constitute the most complete Roman siege works surviving to the present day.” A worthy subject for a ghetto musical.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Kristallnacht - 70 years on

Coming barely a couple of days after my visit to Yad Vashem (Jerusalem’s intensely evocative and memorable Holocaust Museum), this weekend marks the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht (the night of broken glass) in Nazi Germany. It was this night that showed Germany’s fatal intentions towards its Jewish population. The pretext was the 1938 assassination of the third secretary of the German embassy in Paris, Ernst Vom Rath. Vom Rath’s killer was a Jew, 17 year old Herschel Grynzspan. Grynzspan was outraged over the scandalous treatment of his parents at the hands of the Nazis and took the law into his own hands. His actions served as a pretext for mass violence across Germany.

Though conditions were ripe for such a reaction, Kristallnacht would have been inconceivable barely two years earlier. Indeed in February 1936 a young Jewish man David Frankfurter assassinated Wilhelm Gustloff, the Nazi Gauleiter for Switzerland. There was no obvious backlash to Frankfurter’s action. Even though Vom Rath was a lower ranking Nazi official than Gustloff (who headed up a country’s Nazi apparatus), conditions had changed drastically by November 1938. It was now easy to enact, what today’s Jerusalem Post called “brutal vandalism [against] the Jewish community”.

Germany had been exposed to a steady barrage of anti-Jewish propaganda since 1933 with the Nuremburg Laws of 1935 relegating Jews to second-class citizens. The law and propaganda worked hand in hand to crush Jewish life. Authorities rushed to become “Judenreit” (Jew free) and movies and cartoons portrayed Jews as vermin, extortionists and rapists.

The world beyond Germany tacitly participated in this downgrading of an entire race of people. The 1938 Evian Conference held in the French Alps was called to discuss the growing problem of Jewish refugees anxious to get away from the troubles of the Third Reich. However none of the countries attending the conference were anxious to take the Jews in. As an exhibit in Yad Vashem points out, Australia does not come out well from this shameful conference. Australia’s representative T.W.White is quoted as saying “We have done all we can. Australia does not have a racial problem and is not desirous of importing one”. His view was mirrored by the other western powers. A Nazi observer returned to Berlin overjoyed with the news he gave Hitler. “you can do what you like with the Jews, no one is interested in them,” he told the Fuhrer.

This view was reinforced by the experience of the SS St Louis. The St Louis set sail from Hamburg with its cargo of 900 refugees. Its destination was Havana and Cuba had already issued visas in advance, on the understanding the visitors were tourists not refugees. However by the time the boat landed in Havana, the Cuban government had changed its mind and refused to allow the refugees land. The boat then drifted off Florida waters before it became obvious US authorities were not going to allow it to land either. The captain had no alternative but to set sail back for Hamburg. But when the passengers threatened to commit mass suicide, the captain landed in Belgium and homes were grudgingly found for the Jews in Belgium, Holland, France and Britain.

There was an upsurge in anti-Jewish violence after Evian. On 30 October 1938, Germany expelled 20,000 Polish Jews who did not have German citizenship. Among these were Grynzspan’s parents. Young Herschel wanted to call world attention to the plight of these people and acquired a gun with which he intended to kill the German ambassador. As this proved impossible he shot Vom Rath instead on 4 November. Iironically Vom Rath had been under Gestapo surveillance for having Jewish sympathies. He died two days later from his wounds.

Vom Rath’s shooting was the perfect pretext to launch a major action against Germany’s Jews. The day he died, Gestapo headquarters sent out a sinister message to all its staff: “At very short notice actions against Jews, especially against synagogues, will take place throughout Germany. They are not to be hindered.”

The “actions” received popular support. The night of 9 November 1938 became known as Kristallnacht with many Germans zealously supporting the Nazis in targeting the Jewish community. 267 synagogues were gutted by fire, 7,000 Jewish shops were looted, 91 Jews were killed and anywhere between 20,000 and 200,000 were arrested and sent to concentration camps. Insurance reports estimated the damage caused by shattered glass at $6m. Goering publicly regretted the action but went on to impose a penalty of 1 billion Reichmarks ($400m) to be paid by the Jewish community for the damage caused to them.

His regret was about the violence’s amateur nature. From then on, violence against the Jews would be left to the specialists. The road to the Wansee Conference and the Final Solution was already laid out. Already the Manchester Guardian of August 1938 announced the existence of three concentration camps at Dachau, Sachsenhausen and Buchenwald. When told of Kristallnacht, American president Franklin Roosevelt said “I could scarcely believe such things could occur in 20th century civilisation”. But civilisation or not, things were to get a lot worse than this for the Jews during FDR’s watch.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Diary of an Istanbul haircut

A bit delayed, but worth relaying:
Monday 20 Oct 2008. We left Bindarme at 7.30am on the hydrofoil to Istanbul. The crowded port boasted ships registered in Panama, Monrovia and Valetta and there was also one from Moscow, a true fish out of water. The boat sped across the Sea of Marmara getting to Istanbul in just two hours.

Arriving at Yenikapi port in Istanbul, I was greeted by the usual plethora of men asking me if I wanted a “tacsi”. But I was determined to set out on foot. The line straight ahead was blocked by the railway to Europe so I headed east in the general direction of Asia. Eventually there is a pedestrian overpass which goes through to a narrow alley onto a busy looking street. It looks promising with signs for Internet and the all-important “otel” (after drawing a complete blank on that score in Izmir). The first two “otels” I try are completely booked out but a third can fit me in for two nights (I wanted four). I wondered if it was because of Arsenal fans in town for the Champions League game tomorrow night. I set out and barely ten doors down I found a barber. I had promised myself a haircut in Istanbul and despite a total lack of the Turkish tongue I figured the language of clippers can’t be too difficult to communicate.

As soon as I was sat in the barber’s chair I was offered a sweet. I looked twice at the offering before the second barber made the “eat” gesture. I had seen this confection barely minutes earlier on the street. It had the look, texture and taste of toffee. “Kurdish” said my new barber friend. “I am Kurdish” he went on. The Kurdish barber stopped cutting my hair to allow me digest the “toffee”. But given that could take some time, I urged him to continue clipping away. A bit of hairy Kurdish toffee couldn’t hurt.

The barbershop had the usual array of incongruous photos common to barbers the world over. Pictures of Istanbul and Pammukale were mixed in with a mural of a Canadian ski slopes.

When I advised the barber with a heavy grunt he had cut my hair to my satisfaction and the universally understood “ok”, he proceeded with the next step of the operation. I could barely believe my eyes as he reached for a cigarette lighter and proceeded to set alight both my ears – Twice! I kept my apprehension to myself, assuming this was some local rite and was surprised the operation was painless. I wondered if this was an effort to quick-dry my ears but as the next step was a hair wash that theory foundered. I assume it was either his way of burning off the hairs from my ear or else a way of taking the piss out of a stupid tourist. The wash felt like a massage and after 15 minutes in the chair I was totally relaxed – despite the earscorching. I walked away with the remains of my Kurdish toffee in my pocket for safe-keeping.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Jordan to invest in Petra facilities

The Jordanian government has announced a $US 1.4 million plan to upgrade visitor facilities at the ancient Nabataean city site of Petra three hours south of the capital Amman. According to local authorities, the project will “enlighten tourists through a wide range of exhibits depicting various aspects of economic, cultural and social life of communities that lived there in a historically accurate way.” The aim is to provide insights into how the Nabataean culture operated 2,000 ago and will be a significant addition to Jordan’s premier tourist site which attracts 30,000 visitors every month.

Petra was the glittering capital of the Nabataean empire which reached its zenith under King Aretas IV (9BC to 40 AD). These dates straddled the lifetime of Jesus and Aretas was involved in hostilities with Herod, the Roman client king of Judea over a domestic spat when Herodias displaced Aretas's daughter as Herod's wife.

The city was established three hundred years earlier by a formerly nomadic people called the Nabataeans. The Nabataeans migrated from Arabia as shepherds and caravan traders who benefited from horse breeding. They settled and farmed rich irrigated productive land on a trade route, centred on the previously unpopulated area round Petra. It became known as 'a rose red city half as old as time'. The capital was strategically situated only twenty kilometres from the crossroads of two vital trade routes; one linking the Persian Gulf (and the silks and spices of India and China) with the Mediterranean Sea (and the empires of the Greeks and Romans), the other connecting Syria with the Red Sea.

Over the next two centuries, Petra became a major centre of commerce in the Negev desert dominating the spice route down to Arabia and Yemen. It carved out a bustling trade in incense, ivory, textiles and other precious goods that flowed by camel caravan from China, India and Southern Arabia to Mediterranean markets. It was the Nabataean ability to harness the limited water supply of the region that was the key to their success. The city’s elaborate water management system is still not fully understood.

By the time the Romans took over the desert metropolis in 106AD, a complex integrated system of hand-carved stone flumes (some lined with ceramic pipes), reservoirs and 200 cisterns was capable of supplying as much as 12 million gallons of water a day to the settled valley.

Petra was half built and half carved into the rock at the interior of a circle of mountains riddled with corridors and gorges. The largest monument is the Treasury building, the Al Khazneh. It is Petra’s signature building most often photographed through the narrow siq (the gap in the gorge) which leads to the monument.

Petra’s decline began after the Roman takeover as the Romans found new sea trade routes replace the caravans. But it remained a capital of a Roman province and a bishopric when Rome converted to Christianity. A major earthquake in 363AD destroyed much of the city’s infrastructure and crippled the water system. Petra sits on the western edge of the Arabian plate, southeast of the Dead Sea. The sandstone outcrops extend north on the eastern side of the transform fault segment of the Dead Sea rift zone. When the water system crumbled, the Nabataean dams and canals no longer diverted flow from the tombs and town and the community no longer had the wealth to rebuild the city. A second earthquake a hundred years later left the city in ruins. It lay forgotten until rediscovered by 19th century archaeologists.

Petra has made the cut in the "official" new seven wonders of the world (alongside Machu Picchu, the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal, the Colosseum, Rio’s Christ Redeemer and Mexico’s Chichen Itza). The interactive exhibit idea was inspired by Fawwaz Hasanat, head of the Petra Hotel Association, after his visit to the Pharaonic Village in Cairo. The Cairo village uses over 100 actors and actresses to perform daily activities and arts of the ancient Egyptians including agriculture, pottery, sculpture and weaving as well as fishing and wine-making. “It was something we lack in Jordan,” said Hasanat. “We have an amazing civilisation of Nabataeans, which deserves to be highlighted in that way.”

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Surviving Syria

The Syrian Government showed last week it has no intention of conforming to democratic norms after the First Damascus Criminal Court sentenced a dozen leading activists on politically motivated charges. The 12 signatories of the so-called “Damascus Declaration” were found guilty on trumped-up charges of “weakening national sentiment” and “spreading false or exaggerated news which would affect the morale of the country.” The Damascus Declaration is a coalition of political parties and independent activists whose stated goal is to build internal support for peaceful democratic change in Syria. There was brief hope in the Damascus Spring of 2001 just after President Assad came to power but security crackdowns put paid to any lasting democratic breakthrough.

The country itself occupies an ambiguous status between rogue nation supporting Islamist groups while at the same time providing refuge for the US extraordinary rendition program. That sense of imprecise belonging is obvious on the streets of Damascus and Aleppo, the countries two biggest cities. I was unable to get money anywhere in Syria from an ATM and I assume there is no reciprocal agreement between the banks of Syria and Australia (there is certainly no diplomatic relations between the two). Yet when stuck for local currency I was able to walk into the most prominent building in Aleppo – the $US300 a night Sheraton and change euros into Syrian pounds with ease.

However I did not carry a lot of cash and my entire supply of US dollars was wiped out at the border from Turkey when they charged me a whopping $50 for the privilege of getting a visa to enter the country. I tried haggling the cost but the border officials weren’t souk salesmen looking for my custom - they genuinely didn’t care whether I came in or slunk off on the bus back to Turkey. The guy at the immigration desk also stole my only pen as his one broke. This was after a three hour wait filling in forms and waiting for the head honcho to stop arguing with a gaggle of burqa-clad harridans so he could frown at my passport from several different angles before letting me into his country. Oddly enough the one question they didn’t ask was whether I was intending to travel on to Israel.

So with little cash and even fewer opportunities to use credit cards I knew my stay in Syria would be short. The planned visits to Krak des Chevaliers and Palmyra would have to wait for another time. I would have to make a beeline for the Jordan border. Arriving late in Aleppo I stayed the night in a fleabag hotel. I walked to the city’s highlight, the 13th century citadel that soars over the town. Passing through the undercover souk en route, I was accosted by a carpet salesman who claimed to be mentioned in Lonely Planet. I resisted all attempts to visit his emporium but he did provide the useful information the citadel was shut for “a holiday”. I would have to admire it from the outside only.

I then walked to the train station where I bought a ticket to Damascus at 6am the following morning. With any luck, there might be a connection to Amman later that day. I was up early the following morning and off to the station in plenty of time for the train. But at the station, the conductor point blank refused to allow me board.

It turned out that yesterday, I was sold a ticket back to Turkey not Damascus (it was all in Arabic so I hadn’t a clue of the destination from reading it). Having come from Turkey I didn’t want to backtrack – I was headed for Jordan and Israel (though I wasn’t telling the Syrians that). Anyway with the aid of a few helpers and a few more of my ever dwindling supply of Syrian pounds I was scrambled onto the already departing Damascus train which left at 5.45am (the 6am train was for Antakya, Turkey). After 5 hours of scrubby desert country (and a long and indecipherable pantomime followed by Tom and Jerry on the TV in the carriage), the train dropped me off on the outskirts of Damascus (there is a city centre station which is mysteriously closed).

I asked was there a train to Amman today. "No", replied the station master. "Ok, what about tomorrow?" He shrugged his shoulders and said "maybe..." Insh’allah!
Undeterred, I started walking in what I thought had to be the direction of the city centre. Barely 200m away I found a bus station which had a bus to Amman in 5 hours time. I used up the last of my remaining local currency to buy the ticket and had nothing left over for the cost of them looking after my bags for a few hours. I had to trudge the one hour distance to the city with all my luggage.

I had time for a quick look round before I trundled back to the bus. Many buildings had President Bashar Assad prominent painted on to them, I saw a statue hailing the liberation of Jerusalem (1184 from the Crusaders not 1967 from the Arabs), a very colourful local funeral, and drank a strong coffee next to the Umayyad mosque with my last change and chatted with a retired elementary English teacher from Azerbajani Iran.

Then it was the long chug back to the bus before we set off for Jordan. We were close to the border when the driver shouted something in Arabic. We stopped at a market where everyone got off. I assumed it was only to stock up on food but one passenger showed me what he got and what I too needed. It was an exit visa costing another 500 pounds (about $15). This was more than what I had left in local currency. At this stage I feared I would be spending time in a Syrian prison until I miraculously located 10 euro which was buried deep in my wallet. The market keeper was only too happy to sell me the exit visa for hard currency and I was able to make good my escape.

When the bus finally crossed into Jordan I saw an ATM at the border which gave me money and next door was a shop selling Heineken beer. Though I didn’t buy any, I knew I was back in civilisation again.