ARM­CHAIR TRAV­ELLER

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

Why would any­one tor­ture and kill a travel agent? You’d reckon it must have been a re­ally bad hol­i­day. But there are more sin­is­ter moves afoot in a gritty episode ti­tled Mon­day, 8.30pm, Seven.

Pre­miere of a six-parter that ex­poses the re­al­i­ties of a Tus­cany life-change idyll: olives, wine, warts and all. Thurs­day, 8pm, Life­Style. Su­san Kuro­sawa lit­tle har­bour fronted by el­e­gant stone-built ho­tels. Restau­rant ta­bles en­crust a nar­row water­front where ge­nial touts lurk in shad­ows shot through with darts of liq­uid sun­light.

There’s a gen­darmerie post, manned with young re­cruits, should any­one think of mis­be­hav­ing. Coloured awnings flut­ter in the breeze.

Over­run by Is­tan­bul trendies dur­ing sum­mer, in late May, As­sos re­mains pleas­antly laid-back. We walk to the beach at Kadirga, wan­der the herb-scented hills, and spend lazy evenings watch­ing the sun­set over Les­bos from a water­front bar. Later, as re­flected light rip­ples on black wa­ter, there’s freshly caught fish and oc­to­pus grilled over coals and washed down by Cankaya, a zesty white wine that re­minds me of Mar­garet River Semil­lon.

One morn­ing we visit the Acrop­o­lis. A crowded minibus hauls us up the hill to Behramkale, where we run the gaunt­let of lo­cal women hawk­ing em­broi­deries. Be­yond, on a grassy knoll some 300m up, five squat Doric col­umns of a 6th cen­tury BC Tem­ple of Athena frame views along the coast and across the strait to Les­bos, whose colonists founded As­sos in the 8th cen­tury BC.

It is a won­der­ful spot, airy and in­spir­ing. One per­son who liked it was Aris­to­tle. He spent three years at As­sos un­der the tyrant Her­mias, a fol­lower of Plato at­tempt­ing to im­ple­ment the ideal city-state. The philoso­pher mar­ried the tyrant’s niece and lec­tured among the olive groves. But the bot­tom fell out with the ar­rival of the Per­sians who, not rat­ing Plato, nailed Her­mias to a tree. Out of a job, his feathers ruf­fled, Aris­to­tle fled to Mace­do­nia. There he be­came tu­tor to the young Alexan­der, soon to be the Great.

Sto­ries like this in­spire the am­a­teur his­to­ri­ans in us. So next day we travel to Bergama, site of an­cient Perg­a­mon and a chaotic Turk­ish town where the main­stay is not tourism, but agri­cul­ture. You can’t tell this to the lo­cal taxi driv­ers, how­ever, who plague us like lo­custs the mo­ment we step from the bus. Typ­i­cally, the fel­low I en­gage to drive us to the Acrop­o­lis has a dodgy ve­hi­cle. With the tem­per­a­ture nudg­ing 35C, I push a bright yel­low taxi down the main drag of Bergama amid a fusilade of car horns and vir­u­lent abuse.

The in­ci­dent ap­peals to Jo’s comic in­stinct. That was so cool,’’ she says, laugh­ing un­con­trol­lably as I wring the sweat from my T-shirt; the driver, lament­ing that Al­lah doesn’t will it, del­e­gates us to a com­pan­ion. This fel­low looks old enough to have de­fended Gal­lipoli, but his ve­hi­cle is im­pec­ca­ble and soon we are whizzing through town, pass­ing the im­pos­ing Red Basil­ica (en­dorsed by St John in the book of Rev­e­la­tion as the home of the throne of the devil) and wind­ing up a mighty big hill.

Arriving at the Acrop­o­lis, we tum­ble into a mi­asma of liq­uid heat. Tourists move, seem­ingly in slow mo­tion, through a wilder­ness of shim­mer­ing white mar­ble. The air smells of dust and car­bonised herbs. My ini­tial in­stinct is to head for the cafe and a cold drink but Jo is made of sterner stuff.

Weren’t you the one read­ing Livy on the beach?’’ she taunts. Read­ing the an­cient Ro­man his­to­rian re­quires stamina, but it en­ables me to look out over the rooftops of mod­ern Bergama and imag­ine, ar­rayed across the hazy plain be­yond, the gleam­ing shields, hel­mets and spear-tips of the 4000 Gal­lic mer­ce­nar­ies sent to be­siege the ci­tadel by the mega­lo­ma­niac Syr­ian King, An­ti­ochus the Great.

Ar­guably it was Perg­a­mon’s finest hour. The year was 190BC and the city, un­der its king, Eumenes II, had sided with Rome in its strug­gle with An­ti­ochus for mas­tery of the east­ern Mediter­ranean. Eumenes es­caped from the city to con­fer with the Ro­man top brass, in whose com­pany, Livy records, he made a lovely speech. The busi­ness of rout­ing the Gauls was left to 1000 Greeks from the Pelo­pon­nese un­der a cer­tain Dio­phanes, who re­sorted to the age-old tac­tic of pre­tend­ing he and his men were pushovers be­fore burst­ing from the gates.

Erected in the first flush of victory, the ed­i­fices daub­ing the hill­top date largely from this pe­riod. Pic­tur­ing Eumenes city re­quires imagination, how­ever, as the site was ex­ca­vated in the late 19th cen­tury by a Ger­man rail­way en­gi­neer who cleaned it up, lit­er­ally; the best ex­hibits, in­clud­ing the fa­mous frieze from the Al­tar of Zeus, re­side in Berlin’s (ad­mit­tedly ex­cel­lent) Perg­a­mon Mu­seum.

There re­main, how­ever, a fine the­atre, cis­terns, walls, foun­da­tions and the white mar­ble col­umns and ar­chi­traves of the later Tem­ple of Tra­jan and Hadrian, which soar into a peer­less sky. Here we join a bored­look­ing group whose English leader is ex­plain­ing how the last king of the At­talid dy­nasty, At­talus III, dy­ing heir­less, be­queathed the city to Rome, and how its fa­mous li­brary was pil­laged by Mark Antony to pro­vide sport for Cleopa­tra. He fin­ishes with the quote from Blaise Pas­cal about Cleopa­tra’s nose —‘‘If her nose had been shorter, the his­tory of the world might have been changed’’ — which falls flat as the air around us.

Later, dizzy with ru­ins, we leave the site and stroll into town. In the bazaar, we hitch a lift to the As­cle­pion with a fel­low whose car has ev­ery­thing ex­cept a floor, which means we ride with our knees drawn up un­der­neath our chins. Even then, things don’t be­come re­ally in­ter­est­ing un­til we race along a dusty lane, scat­ter­ing hens, chil­dren on bikes, a flock of goats and its white-bearded goatherd, who stands out­raged in our wake, bran­dish­ing his fist.

Shaken rather than stirred, we ditch the As­cle­pion in favour of town and an es­tab­lish­ment I noted that morn­ing. Be­neath a canopy of vines, Turks laze at ta­bles, ducks ca­vort in a cas­cad­ing foun­tain and, prom­i­nent on a pol­ished tim­ber counter, an iconic brass and ce­ramic font dis­penses de­li­cious Tuborg beer into tall glasses, white with frost.

The first Tuborg barely touches the sides and we promptly or­der an­other round. Only when our brows cool and the dust is dis­lodged from our throats do we con­sult the menu, or­der­ing fried aubergines, green beans, spicy meat­balls and golden-fried pota­toes. It bodes to be a lengthy night.

Even­tu­ally, though, the day’s ac­tiv­i­ties catch up with us and the phrase Where you want to go?’’ as­sumes new mean­ing. In­shal­lah, we can find our lodg­ings. Su­san Kuro­sawa’s col­umn re­turns next week.

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