Post yourself around the world
Simon Calder reveals one way of pushing the envelope of your global horizons
Simon Calder’s career in travel started at Gatwick Airport, where he cleaned aircraft for Laker Airways and later worked as a security officer. He became The Independent’s Travel Correspondent in 1994, and is known as “the Man Who Pays His Way” because he does not accept free travel facilities. He writes across the Independent titles, as well as for the Evening Standard.
Saturday 09 August 1997
Like railway stations and frontier posts, post offices comprise a necessary part of any journey. And whether you pop in to buy a postcard stamp, or stand in line for hours while you wait for your chance to find that no one has bothered to send you a poste restante missive, some are attractions in their own right.
That jaunty little figure, frozen in the act of wheeling from Earl Street North into O'Connell Street, is James Joyce. The author's statue stands just across the road from the symbolic heart of Irish nationalism: the General Post Office. Around 1816, when the stout Doric columns were hoisted from the drudge of what was then Sackville Street, Dublin was just another British provincial city. A century later, in the Easter Rising of 1916, the proclamation of the Republic of Ireland was read from the steps of the well-proportioned neo-classical facade.
The interior was wrecked in the subsequent siege. Today, it comfortably combines the status of nationalist icon and purveyor of postal products. The nation's largest tricolour flutters above it, splashing green, orange and white into the sky above the street which has since taken the name of the liberation hero Daniel O'Connell.
The American capital is home to two fine ex-post offices, each of them a fully fledged tourist attraction - and, like most things in Washington, offering free admission.
The Old Post Office presides over Pennsylvania Avenue, a 399ft granite fortress whose innards have been scooped out and replaced with a vast, airy atrium and a dozen places to eat, including Chinese, Indian and Japanese. The building is in the care of the National Parks Service, and a be-Stetsoned ranger will take you in the glass-sided, vertigo-pumping lift to the belltower at the top, for the second-best vista in Washington (the first being from the slender needle of the Washington Monument, piercing the western sky).
Look in the opposite direction and you see an overbearing hunk of a building perched beside Union Station. This Beaux Arts palace took over from the Old Post Office as the capital's main mailroom, but itself fell victim to federal budget cuts and the notion that Americans did not need to send letters in style. After many years of abandonment, it has now re-opened as the latest addition to the Smithsonian repertoire of museums.
The National Postal Museum traces, with a degree of levity, the tale of the US Mail from Pony Express to automated sorting. But as the hands- on computer prints out your pre-addressed postcards, you can't help thinking that while the 20th century was the preserve of the post, electronic communications in the 21st century will consign mail to the museum permanently.
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
Until 1975, the staff at the US Embassy in Saigon had it easy. They could just nip two blocks south to South Vietnam's finest post office, which stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the city's cathedral. Unlike the Embassy (a concrete jumble of defences, abandoned on the last day of April 1975) and South Vietnam (ditto), the Post Office is thriving. The French took control of Saigon in 1861 and the post office shows the regime at its prime, a Poste that would not look out of place in Lyon. Inside, a map of "Indochine" shows how the old colonial order held sway over the entire region. Dominating every transaction these days, however, is a huge, beaming portrait of Ho Chi Minh.
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