Tag Archives: strange places and distant events

Poem of the Week #13: Ithaca (Cavafy)

One of our big sellers in the shop is Cavafy, an early 20th century Greek poet who interacts with Greek mythology in a most satisfying way. I suppose we all have an Ithaca in our lives…


When you set out on your journey to Ithaca,
pray that the road is long,
full of adventure, full of knowledge.
The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,
the angry Poseidon — do not fear them:
You will never find such as these on your path,
if your thoughts remain lofty, if a fine
emotion touches your spirit and your body.
The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,
the fierce Poseidon you will never encounter,
if you do not carry them within your soul,
if your soul does not set them up before you.

Pray that the road is long.
That the summer mornings are many, when,
with such pleasure, with such joy
you will enter ports seen for the first time;
stop at Phoenician markets,
and purchase fine merchandise,
mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and sensual perfumes of all kinds,
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
visit many Egyptian cities,
to learn and learn from scholars.

Always keep Ithaca in your mind.
To arrive there is your ultimate goal.
But do not hurry the voyage at all.
It is better to let it last for many years;
and to anchor at the island when you are old,
rich with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches.

Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.
Without her you would have never set out on the road.
She has nothing more to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not deceived you.
Wise as you have become, with so much experience,
you must already have understood what Ithaca means.



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Venice and Arrivals

You arrive at the city of Venice after travelling for ten hours of night and two of day – the city can only be approached at night, and entered shortly after dawn. In the day, the road in is impossible to find, and a few hours after dawn the city itself vanishes like a dream.

It is a city where saints are to be found in every street staring mournfully from candlelit alcoves, and where slow running fountains appear spontaneously from the ground whenever a traveller is thirsty.

This city is a marvel that the traveller does not want to leave. Even the sewery sweat of Venice smells sweet.

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Poem of the Week #10: Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (Byron)

My departure draws near, and it is time for Byron, for three reasons. One, he was a great European traveller. Two, he is venerated as a national hero in Greece (my final destination). And three, because I wish to be more Byronic in my own life. This essentially means that I want to be eccentric and characterful in conversation, brilliant and prolific in my writing, and to sleep with everyone. This does not seem like too much to ask.

from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage

The waters heave around me, and on high
the winds lift up their voices. I depart
Whither I know not, but the hour’s gone by
When Albion’s lessening shores could grieve or glad mine eye.

Once more upon the waters, yet once more!
And the waves bound beneath me as a steed
That knows his rider – welcome to their roar!
Swift be their guidance, wheresoe’er it lead!
Though the strained mast should quiver as a reed
And the rent canvas fluttering strew the gale,
Still must I on – for I am as a weed
Flung from the rock on ocean’s foam, to sail
Where’er the surge may sweep, the tempest’s breath prevail.

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Books I’ve Read: The Travels (Marco Polo)

Let us begin in a prison in Genoa, in the year of Our Lord 1298.

A cell door clangs open, and Rustichello da Pisa is thrust inside. Were he born six hundred years later, we would describe him as a failed novelist – at this point in time, he is simply a failed writer of romances, caught in the wrong place at the wrong time and confined as a prisoner of war. As his eyes become accustomed to the dim light, Rustichello realises he is not alone – there is another man in this cell, a wild eyed man of forty four but who possess the manic energy of a younger man. Or a madman.

He won’t stop talking as he paces the cell, speaking of Mongol warriors who drink the blood of their horses even as they ride them, Eastern witchdoctors who can kill a man with an ill thought and levitate a room full of wine cups from the ground for the amusement of great kings, unicorns that crush men with their knees and lacerate them with barbed tongues. At first Rustichello thinks he too will go mad from this endless chatter, and imagines beating or choking the life out of the ridiculous fabulist who won’t give him a moment’s peace. But as he listens closer, he gradually realises that, poor writer that he is, he is being given the opportunity for greatness…or at least the bestseller he needs to pay off his more troublesome creditors. He grabs the other man and sets him down, looking at him with utter seriousness.

“What’s your name?”

The wild eyed man stops jabbering for a moment and looks at him with eyes of a most brilliant, intense blue.

“Marco Polo.”

“Marco Polo. Good name.” Rustichello leans in even closer. “You and me, we’re going to make a bloody fortune, Marco.”


My story is a lie. Who knows what truly went on in the first meeting between Marco Polo and Rustichello de Pisa, or what their respective characters were like. Perhaps Rustichello was the wild fantasist, and Marco a laconic, cynical traveller who simply fuelled the other man’s creativity. Perhaps they didn’t even meet in prison as tradition has it, and that story was a final embellishment to a book of embellishments.

But however they met, between Marco’s mixture of personal travel experience (allegedly as an envoy to Kublai Khan, probably as an occasional merchant visitor to the East, perhaps entirely fictional) and hearsay from other travellers on the road, and Rustichello’s exaggerations and outright fabrications, they produced the work we know as the Travels of Marco Polo. It was an instant success, a 13th century bestseller, and it has become one of the classics of travel writing.

It is a delicious, exhilarating read…in places. It has shades of Herodotus (another traveller of antiquity who couldn’t resist a good story), as Marco and Rustichello take you on an thrilling journey into their semi-fictional vision of the Orient, stopping off at remote villages and great cities, visiting the courts of great kings and the homes of humble tradesmen along the way.


Parts of it sound almost like a 13th century Lonely Planet – we are told that a particular part of Mongolia, where women are given honour depending on the number of women they have slept with and thus compete for the sexual affections of passing travellers, is “understandably, a very good place for young men aged between 16 and 24.” It tells you how to cross particular deserts where you “must not drink the brackish water” that drives men mad. It is when the book places you on the ground, travelling over deserts and high mountain passes, eyes boggling at the sumptuous luxury of the Great Khan’s court that it is at its strongest.

When Marco runs out of stories (or rather, when Rustichello couldn’t be bothered to make anything interesting up,) the details go thin. There are rather too many Chinese provinces that are summarised as being “filled with idolators, subject to the Great Khan and who use paper money,’ and the book as a whole lacks any kind of overall structure or deliberate point – it trails to an unsatisfactory end, with only a hurried epilogue that vainly tries to tie the whole thing together. It is a patchwork of anecdotes, nothing more, nothing less.

The Travels is a work of fictional anthropology, a record not of the actual 13th century Orient but of Western perceptions of the Orient – this sprawling, mythical continent of uncountable riches, beautiful women, ancient civilisations and barbaric, endlessly warring Tartar clans. In present day works of history and travel writing we feign objectivity and accuracy, but almost invaribaly craft facts into stories, a succession of scarely connected events into a kind of overarching narrative. It is how we  make sense of strange places and distant events – Marco and Rustichello were simply more honest than most in how large a part storytelling has to play in the process. All history is storytelling, just as the telling of ancient history turns it, inevitably, into myth.

Book-In-Laws: The Histories (Herodotus), A Thousand and One Nights (Various), Invisible Cities (Italo Calvino)

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