Delos Diary

As reported earlier this week on Gadling, the Greek government recently announced that it has earmarked $2 million for the restoration of an ancient theater on the sacred island of Delos. That welcome announcement — some rare good news emanating from that beleaguered country I love — had special import for me, because one of the magical experiences of my early traveling life took place on Delos. Reading about the theater and the history of the island re-immersed me in that singular memory — and inspired me to hunt through my journals and scrapbooks for an account I wrote shortly after my visit more than three decades ago. I offer it here not as a guidebook to the current conditions of the place — I’ve never returned — but rather as a snapshot of its spirit, and a celebration of the serendipitous bonds that travel can sometimes bestow.


There are no tavernas, no discotheques, no pleasure boats at anchor; nor are there churches, windmills or goatherds. Delos, three miles long and less than one mile wide, is a parched, rocky island of ruins, only 14 miles from Mykonos, Aegean playground of the international vagabonderie. Once the center of the Panhellenic world, Delos has been uninhabited since the first century A.D., fulfilling a proclamation of the Delphic oracle that “no man or woman shall give birth, fall sick or meet death on the sacred island.”

I chanced on Delos during my first visit to Greece. After three harrowing days of seeing Athens by foot, bus and taxi, my traveling companion and I were ready for open seas and uncrowded beaches. We selected Mykonos on the recommendation of a friend, who suggested that when we tired of the beautiful people, we should take a side trip to Delos.

On arriving in Mykonos, we learned that for under $3 we could catch a fishing trawler to Delos (where the harbor is too shallow for cruise ships) any morning at 8 a.m. and return to Mykonos at 1 p.m. the same afternoon. On the morning of our fourth day, we braved choppy seas and ominous clouds to board a rusty, peeling boat that reeked of fish. With a dozen other tourists, we packed ourselves into the ship’s tiny cabin, already crowded with anchors, ropes and wooden crates bearing unknown cargo.At some point during the 45-minute voyage, the toss and turn of the waves became too much for a few of the passengers, and I moved outside into the stinging, salty spray. As we made our way past Renea, the callus-like volcanic island that forms part of the natural breakwater with Delos, the clouds cleared and the fishermen who had docked their caiques at the Delos jetty greeted us in bright sunlight.

At the end of the dock a white-whiskered man in a navy blue beret and a faded black suit hailed each one of us as we walked by: “Tour of Delos! Informative guide to the ruins.” A few yards beyond him a young boy ran up to us, all elbows and knees, and confided in hard breaths, “I give you better tour. Cheaper too.”

I had read the Delphic oracle’s proclamation the night before and wondered what these people were doing on the island. I asked the boy, and he pointed to a cluster of houses on a knoll about a thousand yards away. “I live here. Family.”

At first glance, Delos seemed the quintessential ruin: broken bits of statues, stubby pillars, cracking archways and isolated walls. Nothing moved but the sunlight, glinting off the fragments like fish scales scattered over a two-acre basin.

Other movements had once animated the alleys and temples before us. Legend has it that Delos was originally a roving island when Leto, mistress of Zeus, landed there racked with birth pains. Poseidon anchored the island in its present position while Leto brought forth Artemis and Apollo, the Greek sun god and protector of light and art. Apollo eventually became the most revered of the Greek gods, and religious devotion, coupled with the island’s central, protected situation, established Delos as the thriving center of the Mediterranean world, religious and commercial leader of an empire that stretched from Italy to the coast of Asia Minor.

Wandering the ruins of this once-boisterous center, we found temples both plain and elegant, Greek and foreign; massive marketplaces studded with pedestals where statues once stood, now paved with poppies; a theater quarter with vivid mosaics depicting actors and symbolic animals and fish; a dry lake ringed with palm trees; a stadium and a gymnasium; storehouses and quays along the waterfront; and an ancient suburb where merchants and ship captains once lived: the haunting skeleton of a Hellenistic metropolis.


At 12:45 the captain of the trawler appeared at the end of the dock and whistled once, twice, three times, then waved his arms. He repeated this signal at 12:50 and 12:55. My friend left, but something about those deserted ruins held me, and I decided to spend the night on the island. I watched from the top of Mount Cynthus, the lone hill, as the boat moved away toward the mountains of Mykonos on the northeast horizon. Looking around, I felt at the center of the Cyclades: to the north, Tinos, to the northwest, Andros, then Syros, Siphnos, Pros and Naxos, and beyond them Melos and Ios — all spokes in the sacred chariot of the sun god.

Below me the ruins were absolutely desolate, shimmering silently in the midday sun. A lizard slithered over my boot. The boat crawled father away. The wind sighed. Droplets of sweat seemed to steam form my forehead.

I walked down the hill to the shade of the tourist pavilion, the one concession to tourism (besides a three-room museum) on the island. I walked inside and asked the owner, a large, jolly man with a Zorba mustache, what he was offering for lunch. He looked surprised to see me. “You miss the caique?”

“No, I wanted to spend the night here.”

“Ah.” He looked beyond me into the glaring, baked ruins. “We have rice, meat, vegetables.”

“Do you have any fish?”

“Fish? Yes.” He directed me to a case in the back room, opened it and took out five different fish, each caked with ice. “Which do you want?” I pointed to one. “Drink?”

“A beer, please.”

He nodded, pointed out the door to a terrace with tables and chairs scattered at random like dancers at a Mykonos discotheque, and said, “Sit, please,” motioning me into a chair.

The heat hung in the air, folding like a curtain over the pillars and pedestals, smothering the palms and reeds. Occasionally a dusty-brown lizard would scuttle from one shadow into another. The owner moved from kitchen to terrace like a man who has never waited, never worried about time, wiping off the table, bringing a glass of cold beer, then fish, fried potatoes and a tomato salad.

Eventually, two old men dressed in the same uniform as the man who had greeted us that morning walked up carrying two pails filled with water. One went inside and began to talk animatedly with the owner. The other sat down on the edge of the terrace, dipped his callused hands and pulled out a white and black octopus. He rolled the octopus in a milky white liquid from the other pail, twisting and slapping its tentacles against the cement until he was satisfied it was clean. Then he laid it aside, and dipped in again, pulling out another slippery creature. He cleaned five octopuses in all, leaving them oozing in the sun, their tentacles writhing and their suction cups puckering.

At 4 p.m. a cock crowed. What is he doing here? I wondered. And, more important, why is he crowing at 4 p.m.? The sound broke the silence with an eerie premonition. I looked at the bottles, chairs, tables, heard the reassuring murmur of voices inside. Beyond the terrace, in the light and heart, seemed another world.


An hour later I walked into the ruins, following the wide central avenue (the “Sacred Way”) toward the waterfront, the theater district and the hillside temples. On my way I passed columns carved with line after line of intricate symbols with no breaks between the words; sacrificial altars; huge cisterns for storing rainwater and oil; and vast foundations outlining meeting halls and marketplaces by the wharves. I explored the remains of private houses, passing from room to room, trying to imagine where their inhabitants had cooked, eaten and slept, awakened from my reverie only by an occasional spider web or lizard trail. As I walked on and the setting sun cast the halls and walls in an orange-pink light, the ruins seemed to take on a strange life all their own.

What had been eerie desolation became an intense timelessness, a sense of communion with other peoples and other eras. My boots crossed rocks other sandals had crossed; my hands touched marble other hands had touched. When I reached the mosaics, they seemed a living thing, green-eyed tigers and blue dolphins, flowers of every shape and color, the same to me as they were to the countless merchants and artisans who had admired them centuries before. I continued up the hill to the temples of the Syrian and Egyptian — as well as Greek — gods, and reflected how many different cultures had met in that silent hollow below.

While I was sitting in the temple to the Egyptian gods, a figure appeared walking up the hill toward me. It was not the owner of the pavilion, nor any of the fishermen I had seen previously. This was a man in shorts and a Western shirt with a satchel and a walking stick. We exchanged waves and wary glances until he came up and sat next to me. “You are English?”


“Ah, good.” He stuck out his hand.

He was a physicist from Hungary on leave from a national research project for two weeks. “I have been saving my passes for this trip,” he said. “Isn’t this wonderful? Yesterday I examined all the ruins from there” — he waved a finger toward the stadium at the distant end of the basin– “to here. Today I have walked the circuit of the island.” He paused to catch his breath, his cheeks as grainy as the rocks on which we sat. “There really isn’t that much else to see.”

The mountains were turning purple over the poppy-red water. The ruins were fading into shade. I wanted to explore further before darkness set in, so we agreed to meet for dinner.


When I entered the tourist pavilion, the owner greeted me like a long-lost friend and brought out three glasses and a bottle of ouzo. “We drink.” The Hungarian appeared through another doorway that, I learned later, led to the pavilion’s four “guest rooms,” distinguished by the presence of a mattress and wash basin. We finished one bottle and began another, talking in Greek, Italian, French, German and English about everything and soon thereafter about nothing. When one language failed, we tried another, until we were all speaking in the universal tongue of Loquacious Libation.

In another hour or two the owner fixed us a feast of fish, lamb, fried potatoes, rice, tomatoes and cucumbers, with baklava and rice pudding for dessert. While we ate, the physicist and I talked. I learned that the cluster of houses I had seen earlier had been built by the French School of Classical Studies when it was digging on Delos in the 1950s and `60s. When the last archaeologists left, the curator of the museum moved in with his family. It was his son I had met that morning. The old man who had hailed our arrival was a fisherman from a local island who turned to guiding when the fishing was slow.

After finishing our second bottle — compliments of the owner — of sweet, resiny retsina, we drank a good night toast of thick Greek coffee. Then the physicist retired to his room, preceded by the owner’s wife, who had drawn a pitcher of cold water for his use in the morning. I was traveling on a backpack budget, however, and when the owner offered me the use of his roof for 30 drachmas (under $1), half the cost of the guest rooms, I gladly accepted.

I walked up two flights of cement stairs to a cement roof enclosed like a medieval fortress with a four-foot-high wall. The stars glinted like a nighttime mirror of the marble ruins. I unrolled my sleeping bag in a protected corner, thankful that the lizards could not reach me at that height, and rummaged in my backpack for soap, toothpaste and a toothbrush.

“Could you use this?” The physicist held out his flashlight. “I’ve come to ask you to hurry in preparing your toilet. The owner wants to turn off the electricity.”

After I had washed and brushed and stumbled back up the stairs to my sleeping bag, I heard a scuffling of footsteps; voices thundered back and forth through the blackness, and the lights went out.

The footsteps returned, a door squeaked and banged shut, chairs scraped. Then everything was silent. No machine sounds, no human sounds, no animal sounds. Absolute silence. I lay in my sleeping bag, and the ruins encroached on my dreams — the swish of the lizards scrambling over the rocks, the moist coolness of the marble at sunset, the languid perfume of the poppies dabbed among the fluted white fragments.


Streaming sunlight awakened me. I turned to look at my watch and disturbed a black kitten that had bundled itself at my feet. In so doing, I also disturbed the ouzo and retsina that had bundled itself in my head, and I crawled as close as I could to the shadow of the wall — 6:45. I pulled my towel over my head and tried to imagine the windy dark, but to no avail. The kitten mewed its way under my towel, where it set to lapping at my cheek as if it had discovered a bowl of milk.

I stumbled down the stairs and soaked my head in tepid tap water until at last I felt stable enough to survey the surroundings. Behind the pavilion a clothesline ran to the rusting generator. Chickens strutted inside a coop at the curator’s house. Rhenea stirred in the rising mist.

Again I wandered through the ruins, different ruins now, bright with day and the reality of returns: The tourists would return to Delos, and I would return to Mykonos. I ate a solemn breakfast on the terrace with the physicist, then walked past the sacred lake and the marketplace to the Terrace of the Lions. Standing among the five lions of Delos, erected in the seventh century B.C. to defend the island from invaders, I looked over the crumbling walls and stunted pillars to the temples on the hill. Like priests they presided over the procession of tourists who would surge onto the island, bearing their oblation in cameras and guidebooks. As the trawler approached, a bent figure in a navy blue beret hurried to the dock, and a boy in shorts raced out of the curator’s house past the physicist, past me, and into the ruins.

[flickr image via Alex Healing]

Volvo Ocean Race kicks off from Alicante, Spain

It’s dark when I wake up in Alicane, with heavy, blue-grey storm clouds twisting upwards through the Mediterranean sky. Somewhere, 10,000 feet above this small Spanish city the gods are fighting over weather patterns; there’s a dash of clear blue sky here and a seam of storm clouds there, a maelstrom of wind, cloud, rain and energy hashed up atmosphere. In my view, it’s the perfect condition for sailing.

Out on Team Abu Dhabi’s VO 70 though, the weather conditions take a turn. Stale, soft wind starts to blow in from the southwest and our head sail softens. So the officials delay race start for another twenty minutes. In the mean time, our skipper Ian Walker spends time prepping his crew and exploring the winds around the race waters. And we wait.

It’s the day before the official launch to the Volvo Ocean Race and I’m out on a practice run with Team Abu Dhabi, who have invited me to come out and explore their operation before the kickoff. Alicante, a modest city two hours southwest of Valencia is both the opening port for the race as well as home base for the media operations and the upcoming Volvo Ocean Race museum. Over the next nine months, six teams will sail from here around the horn of Africa up into Abu Dhabi, around India, into China, across the perilous southern ocean and then into the Americas before reaching European shores once more.

Many among the management compare the event to the Everest of sailing but it’s more than that. It’s years of boat building, design, planning and execution. It’s the logistics of hop scotching tons of freight and support staff among ten ports across the planet, alternating ports to keep up with the boats. It’s holding onto your guts amidships when the swells of the southern ocean are trying like hell to pull them out of you.

There’s a grave determination among the eleven men on this ship as we cross the starting line and dig into the first leg of our race. Each spinnaker will be cast and folded hundreds of times in the next nine months, each sailor pushed to his limits. In Alicante, the weather is warm and the men are still strong and cheerful. Our world – this ocean will soon have its way with them.

[Editor’s note: Team Gadling joined the Volvo Ocean race at the request and expense of Team Abu Dhabi. Media support made the ships sail no faster nor the writers get any wetter while on assignment.]

Photo of the Day – Boats in Croatia

As a kid, I spent lots of summer vacations staring at boats in the harbor. I never had a good reason for it but today, Flickr user nicocrisafulli’s photo brought all those boat memories rushing back. There’s something childlike and wonderful about their motion, sound and colors: the way they chaotically bob up and down, the soft thwapping of the covers whipping in the breeze and their colorful hulls accented by a rainbow of blues and reds. It’s pretty much exactly what we see in this shot, which was captured in the beautiful Mediterranean city of Dubrovnik, Croatia. I can already smell the crisp sea air in my mind.

Have any great travel photos you’d like to share with the world? Why not add them to the Gadling group on Flickr? We might just pick one of yours as our Photo of the Day.

Letter from Genoa: Savoring the atmospheric alleys of Italy’s great insider city

In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue. In 1493 he sailed the deep blue sea. Half a millennium later Genoa’s ship has come in — again.

Columbus was a native of Genoa, or so it’s claimed. Though he sailed for Spain, he hailed from the capital of the Italian Riviera. The boomerang-shaped region’s official name is Liguria. Stretching from Tuscany to Provence, Liguria includes the well-known resort destinations Portofino, the Cinque Terre, and San Remo. Somehow Genoa is not on most Riviera Grand Tours any more. And maybe that’s for the best. It’s Italy’s great insider city, a real place that’s been spared mass tourism.

After decades of decline in the late 20th century this atmospheric Mediterranean port has rebounded from rust-belt wreck. Backed by steep, craggy mountains and moated by the Gulf of Genoa, it’s one of Italy’s most picturesque, appealing and vibrant places to live and visit. But it isn’t for everyone: visitors find none of the Italy-for-beginners qualities of Florence, for instance. Genoa still belongs to the Genoese.Contrasts and paradoxes abound. A walled fortress-city with crenellated towers and perched castles 900 years old, in today’s Genoa high-tech, culture and iconic Italian food vie for supremacy with the luxury cruise business and Mediterranean ferry boat trade. Gone are the steel mills and refineries, the shipbuilding yards and heavy industrial plants. Hundreds of colorful Cubist container ships dock at a state-of-the-art facility at Pegli, out of sight in the western suburbs.

The focaccia, ravioli and pesto – the holy trinity of Genoese cooking – are as irresistible as ever.

Surprisingly, the open-heart surgery has not killed Genoa’s character. On the contrary, it’s livelier, cleaner and safer than it has been for a long time. The focaccia, ravioli and pesto — the holy trinity of Genoese cooking — are as irresistible as ever.

Long Italy’s busiest port, Genoa was never as rough or corrupt as Naples. Its hillside and outlying seaside neighborhoods have always been chic, expensive and safe. Nowadays its ancient core feels more like a Riviera resort than the grim setting for the 1970s classic “The Day of the Jackal.” Back then this was where Edward Fox, playing the Jackal, had his assassin’s rifle welded inside the muffler of an Alfa Romeo. “Genoa” and “sinister” were synonymous.

It was during those days of economic deep-diving, depopulation and political upheaval that I got to know the city. In the mid-1970s I stepped off a train at Principe station and asked for directions to the harbor. I was 18 years old and on a quest: my parents had taken a freighter from here in 1950 to San Pedro, California. My mother, an Italian, remembered the city of Columbus as magical and mysterious, filled with palaces, tenements and crusader towers. My father, a Los Angelino, recalled the rocky shoreline and stony beaches, the perched fortresses and funiculars, and the strange foods-oily flatbread, salted anchovies, octopus salad, and a pungent green sauce of basil, pine nuts, garlic and pecorino cheese.

I still recall swallowing hard as I walked the 100 yards from the station’s once-grand 1850s halls into the medieval alleyways the Genoese call “caruggi” — what looked to me like muggers’ paradise. A ramp led into a narrow maze with slate roofs that almost touched on both sides. Contoured to steep pleats, the alleys teemed with sailors, prostitutes, and priests, with not a tourist in sight. Mystery met magic at every turn. I finally found the port. It was off limits behind walls topped with barbed wire. But I didn’t care: Genoa’s alleys had worked a spell on me. Thirty-five years later they still do.

Nowadays when I visit I thread my way down those same laundry-flagged alleys with my wife, photographer Alison Harris. She and her family have been tied to Genoa since the 1940s. We often joke that her father, an American consular official stationed here, may have issued my immigrant mother her visa to travel to the United States.

Familiar as Genoa is, each time we return we delight in discovering or uncovering something — the century-old chocolate factory Romeo Viganotti, for instance, hidden down a dog’s leg alley called Vico dei Castagna, near the 12th-century city gate, Porta Soprana. Or that no-name bookstall near Piazza dei Banchi full of unfindable illustrated books, or a trattoria like Sa Pestà, near the church of San Giorgio. Sa Pestà is so old our parents might have savored the exquisite farinata chickpea tart still baked there in a wood-burning oven.

This time around, flanking medieval San Matteo in the dark heart of the caruggi, we got into the church’s hidden cloister, never before open. Way up in the sunwashed hills near the posh, panoramic esplanade at Castelletto we found a perfect keyhole view down to the harbor.

We also tried a handful of neo-trattorias, places like Il Fabbro, with tables fronting gorgeous Santa Maria della Vigna, and Ombre Rosse, another trendy spot in a handsome, pocket-sized square. On the menus of these trendy hangouts are dishes the Genoese would never have contemplated eating a few years ago. The style of cooking features innovative mixtures, globalized ingredients and exotic spices. Some dishes like pesto made with marjoram (at Ombre Rosse) work, others don’t, but as long as the traditional food of the city isn’t replaced by experimental, hit-and-miss World Cooking, no one seems to mind the newcomers.

While the rest of the world’s mom-and-pop stores have been bankrupted by big box operators and malls, surprisingly many of Genoa’s hole-in-the-wall shops we have known and loved for years are still in business. They sell hardware, candied fruit, air-dried cod fish, shoelaces and buttons, or, like Serafina, on Via Canneto il Curto near the harbor, delicious pesto and vegetables preserved in olive oil. Some have changed hands and now offer ethnic foods, reflecting globalization. Genoa has always been open to the world. More than ever, its alleys are a souk with countless complexions and tongues.

This isn’t the first time Genoa has bounced back. Founded by a Ligurian tribe before the ancient Romans showed up and conquered, it lived its heyday in the Middle Ages, when it dubbed itself “La Superba” — the proud or haughty. By the mid-1600s it had slumped, rising again three centuries later as part of the Industrial Triangle: Milan-Turin-Genoa. In the 1890s its moniker became “the phoenix city,” because it was beautified to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage to the Americas.

Similarly, preparations for the Columbus 500th anniversary celebrations of 1992 are what got the most recent multi-billion-dollar bottom-up restoration underway around 1990. The Genoa G8 summit of 2001, and the race to ready the city for its turn as Cultural Capital of Europe in 2004, kept the restorers’ balls rolling. It’s taken this long not just for the scaffolding to come down from dozens of historic monuments, including the hovel where Columbus was supposedly born, but also for the Genoese themselves to descend from their hillsides to reclaim, rediscover and reanimate Genoa’s harbor and tangle of helter-skelter caruggi. This is Europe’s biggest medieval neighborhood, a landlocked Venice whose stony arteries are too narrow for cars. By local standards the 20-year refit is nothing: the old Genoese dialect expression “cian-cianin” — meaning “slow-slowly” — is forever on native lips. It applies to much in life. Everything except the driving is slow and cautious here: restaurant service, courtship, construction and destruction. Cian-cianin.

The old Genoes expression “cian-cianin” (“slow-slowly”) is forever on native lips. Everything except the driving is slow and cautious here: restaurant service, courtship, construction and destruction.

Star architect Renzo Piano, like Columbus another native son, began the remake by transforming the old port à la Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, his model. The centerpiece of Porto Antico is a floating aquarium that mimics a freighter. Anchored nearby is the kitsch faux-galleon from Roman Polanski’s movie “Pirates.” Piano also redirected car traffic through an underpass topped by a piazza edged by palms. He created a subway system linking commuter train stations to the harbor. Luxury hotels, restaurants and could-be-anywhere souvenir boutiques followed.

A success? The aquarium is Europe’s most popular. The crowds rarely stray beyond the piazza into the caruggi 150 yards north. “Daunting” is a term often used to describe the alley-maze. That’s why when you step into zebra-striped San Lorenzo cathedral even at the height of tourist season you’ll probably have the breathtaking Romanesque-Gothic interior to yourself. Ditto the blindingly gilded Chiesa del Gesù a few hundred yards northeast, where parishioners quietly enjoy the overwrought canvases by Rubens and Reni painted and hung here in the early 1600s.

West of the aquarium, where grain elevators and warehouses long stood, the new Museum of the Sea (Galata, Museo del Mare) sheds light on Genoa’s surprising past: it was the richest, most powerful maritime city-state of the Middle Ages. La Superba had colonies and trading posts scattered across the Mediterranean. The crusaders embarked here on swift galleys for their multi-purpose missions: to battle miscreants, preach, loot and create fortified outposts. A life-size rebuilt galley is the museum’s centerpiece. Scant mention is made of the galley slaves-prisoners of war and the poor-who rowed the Genoese into battle, and often dropped dead of exhaustion.

In the Renaissance, making war morphed into making millions with finance and banking. Hated, admired and feared in equal measure, over a period of 500 years Genoa became Europe’s richest city and gave birth to the world’s great navigators, including Columbus. Other heroes include Admiral Andrea Doria, who kept Genoa afloat in the 1500s, and the patriotic pair of “Giuseppes” — Giuseppe Mazzini and Giuseppe Garibaldi, memorialized in a dusty but endearing house-museum. The two Giuseppes paved the way for the creation of modern Italy, setting off from Genoa to unite the country in the 1860s. By doing so they spelled the end of Genoa as an independent political entity.

Most of the city’s long-established museums, including Palazzo Spinola and Palazzo Rosso — hung with startling paintings by Rubens, Van Dyck and Antonella da Messina — were also restored in the decades-long remake, as were Romanesque and Baroque churches, and the sprawling Ducal Palace, one of the country’s biggest and most over-decorated. Its plasterwork and trompe-l’oeil-a Genoese specialty-make every inch of the hulking, block-long palace dizzyingly gaudy and grand. Marble staircases much wider than those of Venice, Florence or Rome mount 100 feet vertically from the ground floor to the piano nobile, where the doge met ambassadors. Faux columns fly into the vaulted vastness of salons that could swallow sports stadiums, and now host temporary art exhibitions. Gods battle each other amid clouds and aerial ruins. In case you swoon, the palace also hosts a café and restaurant (and two bookstores).

Better still, the city’s main Renaissance thoroughfares edging the caruggi have been pedestrianized. The luxurious palaces lining them have been scrubbed and many opened to the public for the first time ever. The streets — Via Garibaldi, Via Cairoli, Via Balbi and Via Lomellini — and palaces are now UNESCO World Heritage Sites. As the setting for a cappuccino served “slow-slowly” on a shaded terrace, or an unexpectedly satisfying museum visit to the Van Dyck salon of Palazzo Rosso, for instance, these streets are mesmerizing, the perfect sunny yin to the dark, cool yang of the caruggi.

The Cinque Terre, Portofino and San Remo are swell. But beyond the recipe for perfect pesto, wily old La Superba, the phoenix city of gradual transformations, may yet have something essential to teach the rest of the world about slowing down and enjoying life.

[Photos: Flickr | Perrimoon; Tim Brown architect; Umberto Fistarol; apes_abroad; Serge Melki]

Stonehenge burial may be prehistoric tourist

Archaeologists call him the “Boy with the Amber Necklace”, and ever since he was discovered in 2005 they’ve known he was special. Not only would his jewelry have been rare and expensive back when he was buried 3,550 years ago, but the choice of his grave site was significant too–just three miles from Stonehenge.

Now chemical analysis on his teeth has revealed something else special about him–he isn’t from England at all, but from the Mediterranean. Tooth enamel forms in early childhood and retains oxygen and strontium. Different isotopes of these elements are found in different ecozones and regions, and show where an individual grew up. When scientists analyzed the teeth of the Boy with the Amber Necklace, they found he’d grown up around the Mediterranean. The “boy” was actually about fourteen or fifteen years old, and it’s unclear exactly why he came to southern England and the sacred site of Stonehenge.

This isn’t the first time a burial near Stonehenge has turned out to be from somewhere else. The “Amesbury Archer”, a grown man buried with some of the oldest gold and copper artifacts ever found in the UK, grew up in the foothills of the German Alps some 4,300 years ago.

So were these prehistoric tourists? Well, more like prehistoric pilgrims, or perhaps immigrants coming to work at one of the most sacred and dynamic places in the prehistoric world. People often assume international travel is a new thing, starting in the age of luxury liners and really getting going when international flights became cheap, yet daring individuals and groups have been making long journeys for thousand of years. The Boy with the Amber Necklace and the Amesbury Archer could have taken boats along the coastline and rivers, and would have had to do a lot of walking too. They may have been helped along by a simple yet effective prehistoric navigation system. In the days when the waters teemed with fish and not plastic, and the forests were filled with wildlife and berries instead of discarded soda cans, the trip wouldn’t have been as hard as we think.

[Photo courtesy webmink via Gadling’s flickr pool]