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Location: United Kingdom

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Sorrento and Sant' Agata Sui Due Golfi

We were going to go round Scotland in a camper van, but persistent rain and flooded campsites made us reconsider. Hoping for the South of France, we went to the travel agent and asked what deals they had. Two weeks in Sorrento for £500 each, she replied - half board.

So the first thing we had to work out is where Sorrento was, which turned out to be a nice surprise, as it's in the Bay of Naples overlooking Vesuvius and the Amalfi coast.

Our hotel (Due Golfi, which means Two Gulfs) was high in the hills overlooking Sorrento and gave a fantastic view out of the bedroom window.

On the first day we just pottered around the local village of Sant' Agata, enjoying ice-creams and more fantastic views.

The town itself is very small, friendly and Italian, with scooters and tiny cars everywhere.

It was nerve-wracking to walk to Sant' Agata, because there's only a road and no pavement for a good ten minute walk - and Italian drivers seemed to enjoy pointing their cars at us before noticing us at the last minute. But, perhaps because of the Italian-ness of the experience, it added rather than subtracted from our holiday mood.


Sunday, October 08, 2006

Some Korean Oddities

1. There are a lot of people crammed together in the same place. In the high fashion and shopping centres, it can feel very crowded, as we have to push through people all the time. On the other hand, there is little shoving, and people are very gracious about the hassle.

2. Eating Korean food takes a very different mindset to what we are used to. You can see pictures of what the food should look like - although sometimes this is cooked and sometimes uncooked, so if you fancy one of the dishes with the uncooked pictures, it can be very hard to work out what the meal will actually look like when you get served it. Also the meal you think you are ordering is only a small portion of the actual meal. You get a number of small side dishes as well. These may involve: Pickled cabbage, pickled radish, pickled small fish, pickled chillis, pickled onions and ... well, you get the picture. I wouldn't rave about any of them particularly, but the pickled radishes are the best of the bunch.

3. The streets are extremely clean - but there are no bins. I'm not sure if the two are related - but it's possible that they are. I've noticed that the lack of bins makes people simply take their rubbish home. Also wherever you get food or drink, it seems to be practice to take things back to where you got them from. So when people eat at a mall foodcourt they take their trays back to the window where they bought it. Although clean, safe, and with very polite people, we have noticed a number of homeless people - and a couple of beggars, who seem to be accompanied by a small tape player of music as they wander through the streets hoping people will drop money in their bowl.

4. As it's thanksgiving, people dress their children up in traditional clothes and play traditional games. Games I've seen include "wheel the hoop with a stick", "jump alternately on the sea-saw", korean ludo, and "throw the arrow into the pot"

Today we went to another palace. This was used for about half the Korean Joseon dynasty - in other words for about 250 years of the 500 year Joseon period - ending with the Japanese invasion. It was another spectacular grand palace, with ornate wooden buildings painted red and green.

Because of the age and risk of fire, there was no smoking allowed in the area, and they had fire extinguishers everywhere. They also insisted that people only came in as part of a guided tour. The tour guides dressed in traditional costume, and being part of a small group allowed us to feel we had the buildings to ourselves, although in the distance we could see other groups set off and leave along the same pathways.


Saturday, October 07, 2006

worrying times in Seoul

We've just come back from the tour of the De-militarised zone (DMZ) in Korea. It was very interesting and informative, and a sign of just how divided the two Koreas still are.

First we had a passport check, where a soldier came on board the tour bus and checked we were who we said we were - followed by a military film designed to "explain" the true facts of the Korean war. It was quite sobering, with archive war footage, and shots of soldiers marching and bodies coming back. We followed the film most of the way, but at the end it tried to make a point about how the DMZ was becoming a sign of hope for the future, which I must admit seemed a bit far-fetched. It's a big stretch of propaganda to make a several mile wide strip of heavily mined and fortified land dividing a country in two a symbol of hope. Both sides are still technically at war, for instance.

We were given another briefing by a Korean soldier, before taken to the third incursion tunnel. Apparently one day some villagers felt the earth tremble repeatedly under their feet. The government put down test boreholes and found that the North Koreans had been digging tunnels under the DMZ. At first they started with thin weedy tunnels, presumably to let commando troops into the South, but they soon turned to creating big wide ones that could take an army through in rapid time. The one we saw was a long way underground, and very cold and damp. Apparently it had been dug by dynamite by political prisoners. When the North Koreans were discovered and evacuated, they smeared coal over the walls, so they could claim the tunnel was an exploratory mine shaft. Or so our guide told us - although he was obviously a very pro-Southern army guy.

We got a look at North Korea from the top of a fortified observatory - 500 won for two minutes with binoculars. It looked much like the south, except they had cut down all the trees, and they had an enormous flagpole facing the south Korean's one. The base had ridiculous rules on taking pictures - we had to all stand behind a yellow line and try to photograph up a hill and over a low wall. Some resorted to stretching with their cameras over their heads, but really there was no way to actually take a picture. I suppose this was to make the North Koreans feel less like goldfish in a bowl, and yet give a sop to tourists who insist on taking pictures everywhere. I took pictures of people standing on tiptoe and trying to get a photo, instead, as that seemed more interesting.

The last stop was a train station, built as a real symbol of hope by the chairman of Hyundai (who was North Korean originally). It was a fully functional train station, missing only trains and somewhere to send them. The hope is that one day it will be a leg of a great trans-continental train system connecting Korea with Europe via China.

And from that hopeful sign we returned to our hotel and turned on the news, to find that on the day we had visited, South Korean guards had fired warning shots at five North Korean troops who had crossed over the border. And that the North was warning that they would carry out an atomic bomb test in the near future. Initial indications are that it might even be tomorrow. Many people in South Korea are worried understandably about this, as they doubt that the North Koreans have enough experience to calculate yields properly. Although the North Koreans reckon they will do the test in a safe location (probably under a mountain), if they get the bomb wrong it may blow the top off the mountain and irradiate us all with a radioactive plume of fallout.

As the Chinese curse supposedly has it, we live in interesting times.