Saturday, September 30, 2000

Where the Hel am I?

Where the Hel am I?

It's all very well Dante advocating that the middle of life is the time to take a tour of Hell, but where exactly is it? The best the atlas could offer was a little fishing port in Poland...

By Jeremy Atiyah

Published: 30 September 2000

I am standing in the middle of Essex. It's the middle of my life. And no, I am not in a good mood. In one hand I hold a sign which says Harwich, in the other I have a copy of Dante's Hell. Hitchhiking at my age? In this weather? There's no reason for such self-punishment, of course. I could take the train. Except that Dante has got me worried about spiritual choices. The middle of life - I've been reading - is time to take a tour of Hell.

In my case, I'm hoping that an earthly town called Hell will do. I've found two of them in my atlas: one is in clean and pleasant Norway, and one, spelled "Hel", is in Poland, on the grim, gloomy Baltic coast.

Poland wins it, and that missing final "l" doesn't bother me. Which is why I am here now, standing by a slip road in Essex with my thumb out. Hell, here we come! Cushy travel options not available.

Getting to Harwich, mind you, is almost cushy. One lift from a grumpy English man and his pleasant Dutch wife and I'm there, embarking the ferry. No drama. For the rest of that evening I'll be on the lookout for white-haired boatmen-of-death bawling Woe to the wicked!, but all I can see are British couples hiding behind Sunday newspapers all the way to Holland.

The next morning looks bad, though. I find myself in a drizzly Dutch town that I will spend five hours trying to hitch out of. Apart from two bleating sheep, Hoek van Holland is as silent as the grave - even if my mistake here is to hold a sign saying "Hamburg" (it's like standing outside Woking with a sign saying "Baghdad").

Eventually, a man in a Jeep stops. His odd diction emerges in an extremely strong Scottish accent. What man art thou, he seems to say, that free and dangerless, thus in deep Hell dost place thy living feet? Ah! He is in fact speaking Dutch. I want a lift, I tell him. He nods but drives away.

It is obvious that I fit the description of an evil child-rapist in this town. The only person who is eventually brave enough to pick me up is a stoned cockney. "We'll get you all the way to Rotterdam," promises Scott, from the driver's seat. Great, I think. Rotterdam is all of 30 minutes down the road. "Weed or hash for you, mate?" he asks, handing me two plastic sealed envelopes. "I'll take this one, mate," I reply.

Scott has now got one hand on the steering-wheel and one hand on a newly lit joint. Is smoking dope a sin, I worry? A kind of gluttony, perhaps? But what the Hell. The next thing I know, I am standing at a Dutch service station in the rain.

I feel like I am going backwards. My day deteriorates into an endless cycle of slip roads, filling stations, junctions and gravelly verges. At a spaghetti junction beyond Rotterdam, two men looking like Dennis Bergkamp and his toothless little brother, stop. "Hey, hitchhiker!" says little bro staring out of the window with glazed eyes, "wanna go to Papua New Guinea?"

Later I am treated to a series of rides with anonymous, gloomy men in jackets and ties, driving silent cars under black skies through dreary towns like Utrecht and Arnhem. The trouble is that they aren't going anywhere. No one ever is in Holland. These men of mud soon have me reaching for my Dante again. Sullen were we, we took no joy of the pleasant air... sullen we lie here now in the black mud... Is this a story about the Dutch nation? Only when I reach Germany, 24 hours later, do I feel like I'm making any serious progress.

Here everything changes. Suddenly, I am on an autobahn, in a little foreign car surrounded by muscular German cars, flying tail-to-bumper with the joy and precision of fighter pilots in formation. Everywhere I look I see German cars, proud and happy to be in their own country where no one can get at them.

Hamburg, when I reach it the next evening, is in a different circle of Hell altogether. Walking the streets behind my hotel I find respectable-looking people syringing themselves in broad daylight. Later, in the St Pauli area, I am approached by an attractive German girl who has the voice and manner of a PR executive and asks if I would like to have normal sex with her. What would Dante say, I wonder, flicking to the section on carnal desires?

The Germans have one response to worries: solve them. Nothing will be easier than hitching all the way from Hamburg to Berlin the next day. Taking advantage of that German invention, the Mitfahrzentrale - an agency that matches drivers and hitchhikers for a small fee - I promptly find myself being driven along the autobahn at 180kph by a man in a straw hat. We aim to reach Berlin by breakfast.

For a long time, the driver is silent, before he finally asks me whether London is blessed by a red-light district like that of Hamburg. "Actually, we are... discreet in this field," I reply, trying, but failing, not to sound like a hypocrite. Ah, yes. It was always so with you British, chuckles the man.

I am dropped off at Bahnhof Zoo, the centre of West Berlin. If only this place had been destroyed, I find myself wishing, in a Cold War nuclear hell. At least that would have saved millions of people the trouble of mooching here in gloomy eternity, hands in pockets, eating ice creams and sausages. Or am I being cynical? Should I perhaps join these eternal moochers, stuffing my mouth with eternal sausage? No. My journey through Hell is not yet finished. There's a brand new motorway from Berlin to Poland, which I ride that same afternoon in the Mercedes of two unfriendly men, one of whom resembles Hitler and the other Stalin. "Why does this man not speak our language?" they seem to be asking one another. "Of what use is he to our plans of world domination?"

Gloomy forests begin to crowd the road, pylons and pillars and poles and girders clog unkempt fields. I glimpse cobbled alleys and rusty fences. And look! Germans in uniform manning the border to Poland! But my fears are unnecessary. Have a nice day, they say. I laugh. Entering Poland there is no compulsory money exchange, no currency declaration, no visa inspection. Hell, I fear, is not what it was.

But an hour later, I am checking into a room in Szczecin. This is more like it. Within moments I am fixing a broken window frame, unblocking the toilet, killing a bluebottle. What more could I ask for? Heaven?

It's not far to Hell from here. The next morning, I wake to tricklings and gushings and lashings and gurglings and drummings. Mere thunderstorms, I tell myself. Nothing to stop my progress. After attaching an umbrella to the strap of my bag, I stand by a road on the edge of town getting sprayed by Mercedes, BMWs and Audis. Eventually a Lada stops.

The driver is a thin man with dyed black hair who speaks not a word of English, German, or indeed Polish. In his back seat, I notice a beautiful blonde girl reading a book about Buddhism. But as I climb in to join her, she climbs out. She is nothing but a Satanic trick! I find myself cuddling up to a stinky, muzzled black dog instead.

We drive on, with a curious lack of purpose, past fruit trees, crows, black muddy lanes, allotments and pine forests. The dog farts. There seems to be grave indecision as to where we are going at all. Ahem, I say, pointing at my map, but the driver only shakes his head sadly.

A horse-drawn wagon trundles past; village chimneys smoke furiously although it is mid-July. The end of my journey? Almost. That night I settle for a town called Wladyslawowo, where hundreds of bedraggled teenagers are hugging sleeping bags in the main street. I walk to the beach to find it packed, at 10pm, with people wearing raincoats and carrying umbrellas, sitting on benches, eating fried fish from cardboard plates and drinking beer from plastic cups. Is this where bad Mediterranean holidaymakers go after they die?

The next morning, the little fishing port of Hel is a short drive away, through mossy forests along a sand spit. Almost before I have stuck my thumb out, a local doctor whose car smells of medical swabs has picked me up. Are you going to Hell? I ask.

In fact, Hel has golden sandy beaches and picturesque cottages. But I've got Dante in mind and am finding the day oddly humorous. Where, for example, is the tortured, naked spirit of Judas Iscariot? I turn to the doctor as he drops me off: you know there's an English word, hell... I begin to explain. But I can't quite spit the words out.

Funnily enough, no Hel resident gets the joke, when I try telling it. Instead, they smile politely. Only the Yugoslavian ex-sailor who squirts cream into iced coffees at Hel's waterfront bar seems to understand. Yes, he tells me. But this Hel only has one "l".

You're right, say I, taking my coffee. But he has got me confused. A fragrant breeze picks up off the sea and a summery sun is trying to come out. Can it possibly be that this isn't really Hell at all? That I have hitch-hiked all this way for nothing?

Surely not. Happy gulls squawk overhead. People are taking their coats off. I spoon myself a mouthful of cream and sugary foam and conclude: Hell is just not the bad place you sometimes think it has to be.

Going to Hel
Hitchhiking: Jeremy Atiyah paid £22 from Harwich to Hoek van Holland onStena Line (0990 455 455). From there, the road to Hel recommended in 'Europe: a Manual for Hitchhikers' (Vacation Work, £4.95, but the most recent edition is 1985) cuts straight across via Rotterdam, Osnabrack and Hanover to Berlin, where you should bear left for Hel. For details of the German lift-share scheme, visit (in German only).Regrettably, the Polish Social Autostop Committee - Europe's only government-run hitchhiking scheme - collapsed at the same time as Communism.

Planes: the closest airport to Hel is Gdansk, accessible three times each week on British Airways (0845 77 333 77, This is a code-share flight in associationwith the Polish airline LOT. Specialist agents such as Polorbis (020 7636 2217) usually offer fares below those charged by the airlines themselves. Expect to pay around £186 return for travel from London in October - or £11 more if you travel inbound on a Friday. From Gdansk, a combination of trains, buses or (in summer) boats will get you to Hel. And back.

Buses: plenty of buses operate from various UK points to Gdansk. Eurolines (08705 143219, has a fare of £99 return from London's Victoria Coach Station to the city.

Visas: these are no longer required for British passport holders visiting Hel.

Information: Polish National Tourist Office, Remo House, 310-312 Regent Street, London W1R 5AJ (020-7580 8811).

Sunday, September 10, 2000

Miracle destination

Miracle destination

Three times a year, Naples' faithful wait for the miracle of San Gennaro. Jeremy Atiyah tries to stay sceptical

Published: 10 September 2000

No wonder the Neapolitans love him so much. This is the city where a red traffic-light means "go" and green means "proceed at risk"; where the payment of tax or the wearing of a car seat-belt is tantamount to betraying your people. Give me shambolic municipal services, unrepaired roads and a tragic football team, and I will show you Naples. But the thrice-yearly liquefaction - on time - of a block of congealed blood belonging to a local saint? No problem.

It was 17 centuries ago that the man later known as San Gennaro was beheaded for daring to express Christian beliefs in pagan Rome. The Emperor Diocletian gave the order, thus securing the place of Gennaro's name forever in the annals of Neapolitan martyrs. But not until 1389 - 1,000 years later - do the first reports emerge of the repeated "liquefaction" of his congealed blood, by now contained in a sealed vial.

You don't have to be crazy to believe in this medieval mumbo-jumbo, but it certainly helps if you come from Naples. "It seems miraculous," a Neapolitan friend assures me, "but the liquefaction of San Gennaro's blood is not an officially recognised miracle." It turns out that the church is keeping an "open mind" on the matter, and will not submit the vials for inspection, partly on the grounds that opening them might destroy them.

Might, then, this whole liquefaction malarkey be a trick of the church, designed, say, to keep the ignorant masses in thrall? In Naples I stumble across a pamphlet speaking of "valueless hagiographical sources" giving excessive credence to the miracles surrounding San Gennaro. The rational rejection of miracles, I presume.

Until I turn a page to find an analysis of the behaviour of this "unpretentious blood clot", so "anxiously longed for" by the people of Naples. And if the following isn't obfuscation, the Pope is a communist: "Colloidal substances have their own viscosity, rigidity and particular adhesion qualities... Coagulation is the possibility to separate the large colloidal particles from the solvent colloid ... fibrin, serum, coagulum, celluli-lamina ... the presence of natural anti-coagulative substances like antithrombin and heparin..."

It so happens that I find myself in town on one of the three dates in the year on which the miracle is due to occur. According to my guidebook, the action starts early, but I arrive at the Duomo at 7.30am to find talk of jostling, fighting crowds somewhat overblown. Eventually a priest with a key as large as his forearm comes to open the church but inside I find no one save for two blonde French girls in the front pew. Moustachioed carabinieri are patrolling that pew with interest.

I stroll the side chapels, noting that one of them is lined by shelves and drawers resembling my grandmother's front room, except that these are stuffed with the bones and skulls of saints. In San Gennaro's chapel, meanwhile, the curious baroque-style candelabrum designed to contain the vials of his chocolate-solid blood is getting a polishing.

"At what time does San Gennaro's blood liquefy?" I ask the manager of my hotel later that day. He gasps as though I have asked a stupid question, and retorts that miracles do not occur to fit timetables. In fact it turns out that the liquefaction sometimes fails to occur, hence the "anxious longing" of the people of Naples. Such failures have included 1944, the year of the last eruption of Vesuvius, and 1980, the year of a disastrous earthquake in the Naples region.

Back to church. It is late afternoon and there is a crowd standing outside. I muscle my way in, following a crowd of stubbly youths with their girlfriends, photographers, godfathers in suits, coiffured dames, friars in robes, curtseying nuns. We weave and shove between massive columns to the front, where city dignitaries, priests, prelates, monsignors and cardinals mass like bumble bees round the altar. To one side a man in white robes appears to be fiddling with the vials of San Gennaro's blood - and presto! before I know it, the solid chocolate in the vial has taken on a fluid appearance.

Did I miss something? Applause breaks out. Friars and nuns are punching the air. A Sophia Loren lookalike clutches a hand to her mouth. The vial is picked up on a litter, shaken, and shouldered by a long line of chanting choristers. The procession out of the church and through the city begins.

Outside people are jabbing each other and pointing joyfully to see that the saint's blood has indeed become liquid. The procession proceeds at a snail's pace, comprising, first, the urn said to contain the saint's bones, then the vial of blood, then a silver bust, dressed, somewhat preposterously, in a papal cape and hat. Up ahead a priest is chanting a long litany of saints in ethereal tones while we, the people, straggle behind in a vast queue.

Public discipline is maintained by carabinieri who are now wearing not merely red stripes on their trousers, but epaulettes like cabbage leaves, ceremonial swords, three-cornered hats and plumes. The whole apparatus of the church and Italian state are operating magnificently in tandem.

On we go, down the narrow street of San Biagio dei Librai. We slide past the red and ancient stucco of the church of Sant'Angelo a Nilo. Near me I notice the city mayor, Antonio Bassolino, sun-bronzed and sporting a well-coiffed head of hair, surrounded by besuited men. "Ciao Antonio!" shout affectionate grannies from upstairs balconies, before showering us with rose petals. No pushing or impatience mars our progress, only beaming shopkeepers and restaurateurs, waving from doorways.
Up ahead, the litany of saints is over and the prelate is now intoning about the blood of martyrs - a subject designed to appeal to young men willing to risk death for their inalienable right to ride motorbikes without helmets. A mother beside me is in tears; she hugs her small son who asks why she is crying.

Meanwhile, at the entrance to the Church of Santa Chiara, pandemonium has broken out. The bust, the bones and the blood are being ushered forward through closed lines of carabinieri, and through the entrance I glimpse the full power of the Catholic Church on display. Cardinal Michele Giordano, the Archbishop of Naples, sits staring sideways, aloof from the vast congregation. The pews are packed. Plumed carabineri guard the altar area. But entering the church I am confronted by dozens of people trying to force their way out, against the flow of traffic. What are they trying to escape from?

Eventually I understand. The cynics have got out in a hurry. The docile families inside will yawn and sigh beneath his feet, but Cardinal Giordano will exercise no mercy when it comes to the length of his speech, in describing the contemporary social significance of the miracle. And why should he worry? San Gennaro's liquid blood stands on the altar. It is the visible, undeniable, reliable proof - of the existence of God.

Sunday, September 3, 2000

'Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'

'Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'

We are fascinated by the crumbling relics of lost empires

By Jeremy Atiyah

Published: 03 September 2000

In the light of fires, collapsing buildings, sinking subs, pipeline ruptures, radiation leaks, and toxic spills, there will soon be a new aspect to visiting Russia - tourists in the ghoulish pursuit of impending disaster.

Not that I blame them. In fact I'll probably be one of them. The desire to get melancholy in the ruined cities of collapsed empires is as old as tourism itself. We've all had some sort of look at the wreckage of the Roman Empire.

And connoisseurs of cities such as (say) Algiers or Lima will know the fetid delights of other ruined European empires too. The British Empire, which never really belonged to those people we now describe as the British, but rather to that alien species from the 1930s who spoke in funny accents on cinema news-reels, is no exception to this.

It's ethically dubious, but we all do it. Guide books always talk about the "crumbling colonial-style buildings" as excellent reasons to visit places in the developing world, narrowly second to the food and the beaches. Because it's true. Nobody wants to see the new steel and glass post office in (say) Havana if the grotty old Spanish-built one happens to be standing just next door.

The places we all want to see are those stucco-fronted buildings, unpainted for years, now stained, mouldy, cracked and damp, totally unsuited to the tropical climates in which they are located: the kinds of buildings you would find pretentious and dreary in London's Regent's Park for example, but which you'd marvel over and take photos of in Malaysia or India. Yes: under torrential tropical rain, with frying chilli in the air, cows and rickshaws wandering the alleyways, and parakeets chattering from the palm trees, even your suburban house can become a tourist exhibit!

Of course it's harsh on the places themselves. What hotel wants to be described as "so bad that it's good"? It's like having people come and stare at your wrinkles, or take photographs of the holes in your socks. Just think of the possible conversations that your morbid fascination with decay could engender. Local: "What do you like best about my town?" Tourist: "The fact that it's falling to bits, that it stinks and that nothing works." Local: "But you have not yet seen the brand new Italian- built power station." Tourist: "I don't need to. We've got lots of those back home."

Who knows. One day, Chinese or Indian tourists may pick about the ruins of cities like New York or London, enjoying the old-fashioned technology and the quaint old cityscapes now dwarfed by their own state-of-the-art skyscrapers back home in Bombay and Shanghai. In the interests of global equality one might hope that they do.

But in the meantime - where ruined empires are concerned - Russia is clearly the place. Get there before it's too late.