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.