97 Days Adrift in Europe (part 15) – Rome

After 93 days, this is the last stage of my short European trip. I will hop on the ferry from Dubrovnik to Bari and then by train on up to Rome for my first visit to the Eternal City.

First, however, I must survive the trip to Bari, deck class. Travel terms are a bit like those used by real estate agents. When you buy a house (not that most people will ever be able to), you go out on the deck/verandah, tie yourself to the handrail, stand on it, peer through your binoculars at the tiny window of blue ocean and ask “Is that what you mean when you say ‘ocean glimpses'”. To which the real estate agent replies, “No that is what we call expansive ocean views”

Leaving Dubrovnik for Bari, Italy

So it is with travel. Take the term “economy class”, on airlines. First there is, mostly, nothing economic about it. For the $2000, odd, it takes to fly to Europe you could buy 444 cafe lattés. 444. And think how much more pleasure you would get from 444 cafe lattés than you will get from a flight on a flying silver cigar tube. It’s more fun poking your own eyeball out than it is flying.

Secondly, it’s definitely not classy. No, the words “airline” and “class” should never be uttered in the same breath. Similarly with “first class”. I mean, first? This is like offering someone a Big Mac and calling it gourmet food. It would only be gourmet if the only other choice were a turd sandwich.

Random Rome – 1 – round every corner a little treat

So it is with first class on airlines. It is only “first” in comparison with “economy” which, if we had truth in advertising, would be called “jail class”. You are effectively locked in for the term of your flight (life if you crash) and fed pigswill. Once imprisoned the jailers come around and give you orders in return for your $2,000. Seat upright, blinds up (or down), you can’t listen to that now, put that under your seat, do not leave your seat, don’t breathe out, prepare to die etc.

Whichever way you look at it flying is a turd sandwich, uncomfortable, evil smelling, bad for your digestion, your health, your wallet and your temper. And that’s before you board the plane.

Which, in a roundabout way brings me to “Deck Class” on ferries. In theory this means that you get a nice comfy reclining seat in which you can sleep. But, no. You get an unpleasant, uncomfortable, narrow, plastic lined seat, hard as rock which smells of the vomit from the last 20 passengers that had the misfortune to sit in that very seat.

Random Rome – 2 – No Roman was ever too tiled to build a fountain

So every passenger who is in “Deck Class” knows they have two choices. They can literally sleep on the deck or they can compete for the ten comfortable spots in the bar where you can stretch out and there are cushions. Even here, the ferry owners have attempted to ensure no one gets a good sleep by putting up little separators on each lounge just where your knee or shinbone would be if you were to fully stretch out. So you are forced to sleep partially in foetal position.

But before you get to enjoy this luxury seating, however, you must race up the boarding ramp and fight off your fellow deck passengers who, when you beat them to the spot, will spend the rest of the trip trying to work out how they can pay you back by stealing your camera, iPad etc or by by infecting you with the Ebola virus they contracted in West Africa. Nevertheless anything is better than real deck class – unless you are carrying your own mattress around all of Europe, of course.

Unexpected explosions of old buildings on the new

It is a beautiful full-moon lit night as we leave Dubrovnik for Bari and we enjoy a smooth crossing to Bari arriving at 8 am. Bari is a well designed port, if you are a long distance walker.  The ferries come in approximately 2 kilometres from the entrance to the port and the ticket offices. This makes a lot of sense to foot passengers with plenty of luggage who have to lug it the entire 2 kilometres. I am later informed that there was/is a shuttle bus – but in the form it appeared it was clearly wearing an invisibility shield.

I start walking but it’s already hot and after 500 metres I find myself opposite the street which goes to the train station – which is my destination. I can either walk the remaining 3.5 kilometres up and back to the street which, as the crow flies, is just 40 metres away or I can jump over the fence and risk getting either impaled or shot by trigger happy Italian Carabiniere.

The Pantheon. A little old building just around the corner from the……

This is Italian humour at its best. “They” made jokes for 20 years (until it became politically unacceptable) about Italian tanks with one forward gear and ten reverse gears. So we, Italians, will make the foreigners unnecessarily walk for kilometres with a 20 kilo bag.

I examine the 3 metre high metal fence with a view to climbing it. It appears that someone has filed ever point on fence to a razor tip, presumably anticipating just such a plan.

“Luigi, what are you doing, today?”

“Nothing Paolo”

“Please go and sharpen our fence”

“But Paolo, I only did that yesterday”

“Yes but the three tourists who were impaled yesterday, on one of them the points didn’t penetrate entirely through their body”

Around the corner from the….Largo de Torre Argentino & the Fountain of Trevi

Nevertheless I find a relatively hidden spot where the columns and adjacent trees make climbing and descending relatively easy and not withstanding the imagined fusillade of shots from the guards, two minutes later I find myself on the other side of the fence.

Two hours later I am on my way to Rome on high speed train. I shall be staying with my friend, Mike Krockenberger, from day 2 onwards, but the first night I at an AirBnB about 15 minutes from the station. Because I am much later than anticipated, mine host has taken himself off to work at his restaurant.

I am stranded outside the flat, Idiot Traveller, style. I have no way to contact him because my phone has gone flat. My only option is the grocer’s opposite. It turns out, in due course, that the shop owner has a highly honed skill in deduction. Strange tourist comes in pointing at the phone and gesticulating at the tower block opposite but he does not deduce that this is the person for whom his mate Alessandro has left the keys.

…….Which are around the corner from the Italian Parliament, the Egyptian Obelisk of Montecitorio (every city must have one) and Aurelio’s Column…and just before you get to…..

Eventually I get to make a call at which point mine host tells me he has left the keys in the grocery shop opposite and asks to speak to the owner. Now, I’m not one to judge but I feel the shop owner was lacking a little in his use of grey matter.

Day 1 in Rome starts with a 3 kilometre walk up the banks of the Tiber, crossing at Garibaldi Bridge, and then on a standard tourist track up around the Largo di Torre Argentina, the purported site of the assassination of Julius Caesar, , then on to the Pantheon, passing in front of the Montecitoreo Palace, home of the Italian Chamber of Deputies. Immediately adjacent is the Marcus Aurelius Column dedicated, of course to yet more wars waged by the powerful using the bodies of the poor as cannon fodder. From here the Fountain of Trevi is a mere 200 metres away.

The fountain was originally the “terminus” of the Acqua Vergine one of the aqueducts that supplied water to ancient Rome. Nowadays it is the home of a never ending infestation of tourists who come not only look at, to give it its due, what is a pretty spectacular fountain  but also to throw coins into the fountain. The Fountain is best avoided except at quiet times.

Trajan’s Market and Trajan’s column

An estimated 3,000 Euros are thrown into the fountain each day. In 2016, an estimated US $1.5 million was thrown into the fountain. The money has been used to subsidise a supermarket for Rome’s needyhowever, there are regular attempts to steal coins from the fountain although it is illegal to do so. The coin throwing is based on two myths. The first is that the throwing of a coin from the right hand over the left shoulder will ensure that you will return to Rome in the future.

The second legend was the inspiration behind the film ” Three Coins in the Trevi Fountain“. This legend claims that you should throw three coins into the fountain. The first coin guarantees your return to Rome, the second will ensure a new romance, and the third will ensure marriage.

This is, of course, another Italian joke because you will, for certain, be required to return to Rome when your romance has ended and your marriage has crashed and burned. All you will get for your coin is heartbreak and having to endure the crowds in Rome for a second time.

From the Fountain of Trevi it’s less than a kilometre down to the Roman Forum and Trajan’s market which was the Roman equivalent of Walmart with over 150 shops.

The world renowned symbols of ancient Rome are, of course, not to be missed but for me the real charm of Rome are the myriad and random bits of ancient Rome on which one stumbles in places one would least expect them. Columns emerging from the side of modern buildings, bits of ancient wall tacked onto apartment building, Roman era drinking fountains still operating today and a thousand other surprises.

Random Rome – just outside Mike’s flat someone scattered an old arch and a bit of wall

It’s around these areas too that you get to enjoy many of city buskers – most of which or whom are incredibly talented such as the Cocktail Band who were playing next to Trajan’s column.

In the afternoon I head over to Mike Krockenberger’s flat. He has spent the last two summers here having found that his health is much better in Europe than it has been in Australia. His flatmate is away working so I get to stay in the spare room. In hindsight this turns out to be a mistake since my minor cold turns into major health trauma for Mike and pretty much knocks him out for a week – including his planned trip away.

Mike spends two days chaperoning me around Rome before I nearly kill him with the dreaded lurgy.  I am as always a grateful guest.

Our first walk takes us around Rome by night. As mentioned, in other posts about this trip, night time tourism is always a good choice in busy tourist spots. The floodlit buildings are beautiful, the other tourists have dematerialised, it’s cool and you can enjoy the beauty and culture unhurried and un-harried.

Rome by night: Capitolini Hill, museums and steps and Septimus Arch

We descend via the remains of Nero’s Palace and then on to the Colosseum. Nero’s Palace stands on the ancient Palatine and Esquiline Hills. Here my erstwhile tour guide informs me that these giant mud brick remnants of Nero’s Palace and the stone exterior of the Colosseum were not always so. He also tells me that the Colosseum is not named the Colosseum because of its size but because it originally stood next to a giant statue of Nero – the area being named after the statue.

Originally most Roman palaces and the Colosseum were covered with marble and/or mosaics etc. But Nero’s successors and, later, the Catholic Church stripped all these buildings of their marble for use elsewhere. Because Nero was so hated his Golden House was a severe embarrassment to his successors. So after his death it was stripped of its marble, its jewels and its ivory within a decade. As for the Colosseum, you can see the holes on it where the marble was removed.

It’s very appropriate of course that some of the major Catholic buildings in Rome utilised stone stripped from the buildings of one of the bloodiest of emperors. From the butchers of empire to the butchers of religion.

Some old building from which the Catholics flogged the marble fascias – you can see where the marble fascias were, allegedly, attached as shown by the holes in the stone at right

The palace and grounds, encompassing 2.6 km², were filled with earth and built over: the Baths of Titus were already being built on part of the site in 79 AD. On the site of the lake, in the middle of the palace grounds, Vespasian built the Flavian Amphitheatre, which could be re-flooded at will, with the Colossus Neronis beside it.

The Baths of Trajan and the Temple of Venus and Rome were also built on the site. Within 40 years, the Golden House was completely obliterated, buried beneath the new constructions, but paradoxically this ensured the famous wallpaintings’ survival by protecting them from dampness.

For centuries, so well did the later Emperors obliterate all sight of Nero’s Palace, most of it was buried and remained “undiscovered”. It wasn’t until the 15th century when a young Roman inadvertently fell through a cleft in the Esquiline hillside and found himself in a strange cave or grotta filled with painted figures that the rooms of the ancient palace were rediscovered. Soon the young artists of Rome were having themselves let down on boards knotted to ropes to see for themselves.

Building on the left: home of some mystic whose followers have been stealing and buggering children for centuries; on the right home of some old emperor (artist’s impression of Nero’s Palace) – who did the same to half the citizens of the ancient world, if not always literally.

Today the site is a part of an extraordinary effort at restoration involving the removal of thousands of tonnes of covering earth and replacing it 3 metres above where it is now, with a subsurface infrastructure designed to seal off the underground architecture from moisture and regulate temperature and humidity.

The ultimate aim is to conserve the Domus Aurea and its ornamentation, removing salts, mineral deposits, fungal growths, and pollutants that are destroying the frescoes that still cover more than 300,000 square feet—the area of 30 Sistine Chapels.

From here we go up over Capitoline Hill where you can check out the square and buildings, including the Capitoline Museums which are, in fact, a single museum containing a group of art and archeological museums in Piazza del Campidoglio, the designs for which were created by Michaelangelo.

Rome by night. The Roman forum (top), Trajan’s market and the wolf with Romulus and Remus

From here it is down to the Roman Forum, up past Trajan’s column and Market and back to home. This little walk which takes little more than an hour or two passes not only those buildings but Constantine’s Arch, the Circus Maximus and the Roman Forum including Septimus’s Arch. A quite extraordinary circuit of some of the Europe’s greatest antiquities in just four kilometres.

The following morning I repeat my trip around the area we visited past Nero’s little pied-à-terre and round the Colosseum. At 7 am there is already a queue 30 metres long in front of the Colosseum even though it doesn’t open until 8.30 am. The entrance to the excavations under Nero’s Palace are closed but it’s easy to climb over for a quick look around the area above the work area. Not a lot to see but important to look just because they don’t want you to (yes I know, what if ALL tourists did this. Well they won’t).

Mike joins me later in the day for a visit to the Vatican, the source of a quarter of the world’s suffering, with the remaining 75% of its suffering emanating from Mecca and various political capitals around the world. Mike and I decide not to go inside since a goodly proportion of the population of Rome is already resident in long queues in their desire to see how the church of the poor and oppressed has transformed itself into a symbol of wealth, corruption and oppression.

Amen.

This is the 15th and final part of the blog series “97 Days Adrift in Europe”. Links to other episodes and related content can be found below:

  1. Part 6 – Travelling South
  2. Part 11 – Prague
  3. Part 12 – Travelling Crazy – Banks
  4. Part 13 – Budapest
  5. Part 14 – Dubrovnik – Of Wailing Walls and Howling Trains

The Flickr Archive of images used in this post can be found below:

  1. Rome by night
  2. Rome detail
  3. Dubrovnik – Bari ferry trip
  4. Rome – General

 

97 Days Adrift in Europe (part 14) Dubrovnik – of Wailing Walls & Howling Trains

I leave Budapest on one of the few rainy days of the trip, so far. And on a day that turns out to very Australian, based on the efficiency of my transport choice.

As you head south the trains head south too. Slower, rattlier, fuller. The reclining seats, the speed, the power sockets all disappear. The restaurant car feels like a bit of an old 1950s film with the red velvet seats and the full meals for less than $10.

Beer, slow trains, rain and more rain

The south of Hungary and the north of Croatia are emptier and older, too. We pass the rail yards at slug-speed – about the speed that Australian express trains travel at. The rail yards are populated, in the rain, with old fat freight cars looking like something out of star wars.

The trains are so slow as to be 19th century, they creak and groan and as they wend their way around the never-ending bends the wheels howl on the tracks like some lost soul in Trump’s nightmare America. I could be anyway in the Great Brown Land (that’s Australia, for those unfamiliar with the term). Except maybe for the rain.

Dubrovnik, dawn

I had hoped to travel all the way to Dubrovnik by nightfall but it turns out that the timetables and routes didn’t correspond with my reality. As the rain falls I ensconce myself in the dining car – the only place with a power socket – so that I can finish the unfinished travel stories of the last week or so. Invariably restaurant cars are the best place to travel, if you can. Proper tables, coffee, relative quiet and more space. You can read, write, eat, drink and stare out at the passing landscape.

Departing Budapest, in the morning, the trip to Split requires two trains, one to Zagreb, where a two hour wait ensues, and then onward to Split arriving at night. With the velvet seats, faux wooden panelling, soft lighting and falling rain it feels, not just 1950s-like, but like some experience out of Murder on the Orient Express.

As we moan and screech our way through the mountains this sense is elevated by the pantomime when, at each successive tiny station, regardless of whether we stop or not, the guardian of the station emerges replete with uniform and signalling flags and proceeds, like some character out of a historical railway pageant, to perform a marionette-like set of gestures with the two flags he(no women were seen) carries which signal, who knows what, to the train driver.

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Liberated from his flags, the railway station guardian relaxes at his station

There seems to be no logic or reason for these rituals other than to provide employment to, possibly, the only remaining inhabitant of the region. It does not appear that any trains have actually stopped at most of the stations since about 1860 and there is zero evidence that anyone other than the station guardian lives any near most of the stations.

It turns out that there is a music festival on in Split, something I find out when I start a discussion with my fellow travellers across the aisle about why the train is so full and where they are going. They proceed to attempt to reduce me, without success since I have been forewarned about East Europeans bearing gifts, to the same level of inebriation as they are enjoying. They do this with the offer of an unrelenting supply of beer – which no matter how much is drunk continues to emerge, like some liquid form of the Magic Pudding.

Around lunch time we arrive in Zagreb, which for the geographically challenged, is the capital, and largest city, of Croatia. I have nearly two hours to explore in the rain. Like all European cities its outdoor sculpture reflects the long centuries of military conflict and nationalism and its squares are strewn with men on horses. European history might have been much improved had they fallen off.

Men on plinths, men on horses, men with swords, men on plinths in gardens.

Leaving aside the stone horseflesh, Zagreb offers plenty of choice if you like old buildings, churches, monuments, gardens and squares – and all within a gentle 20 minute stroll – plus, of course, the ubiquitous daily market. I undertake a sprinter’s tour of the cathedral, which is particularly magnificent as churches go, the main street, and the market and locate something approaching a tolerable coffee. Then I was able to say “my work here is done”, my tour returning me to the station with 30 minutes to spare.

Zagreb Cathedral

We arrive in Split after dark. I have two choices. Stay at an hotel in Split and take the ferry in the morning or catch the bus down the coast a couple of hours later. The former is significantly more expensive and more hassle but has the attraction of a good nights sleep and avoiding two hours hanging around in the bus/train station. The bus station has all the charm of a Russian security guard and, if you want to eat, requires one to have a worse diet.

The Dubrovnik arrival is early in the morning, at the bus station next to the port. From here it is a 15 minute bus ride to my AirBnB. The first rule of Dubrovnik in regard to finding your accommodation is that there are no rules other than ‘don’t panic everything will come to those that wait’. Do not assume there will be street names. Nor should you assume that your AirBnB will actually be on the street which it claims to be. Even if it is, the actual entrance will be down a side alley, shrouded in bushes, through an arch and around several turns.

Dubrovnik at night

Under most normal circumstances you would ring and get directions:

“Hello, Goran, this is Chris. I’m in Dubrovnik near your place. I just need some directions…”

“Ok, hello, welcome. Where are you? What street?”

“Err, the street doesn’t have a name, we’re by a large square, next to….. (you give the name of a large prominent accommodation establishment just opposite).”

“I’m sorry Chris, I don’t know that place, please tell me what it looks like..”

Dubrovnik by night

” Well, it’s a square right under the city wall, there is the hotel (previously described), there is a shop selling vegetables, a house (#15 – the same number as are looking for), with two stone steps and many pots of flowers in front, there is a person selling shawls, there is another AirBnB, there are steps up to the city walls, there is a mural of King Kong, there is a lunatic asylum, four second hand London double decker buses, a model of an A380, a French patisserie, a statue of Winston Churchill and 15 black sheep and a camel grazing in someone’s front yard…”

En route to AirBnB #2, Dubrovnik

“I’m sorry, Chris, I don’t know that place, please tell me the name of the street…? Please wait.” For what, or why, we are not told. At this point the phone goes dead leaving us abandoned and with a $20 bill for an international phone call.

The point being that no matter how detailed the description you can be sure that “I don’t know that place” is the correct host response. Nevertheless, seconds later an elderly woman will emerge from the suspected doorway, which I had described in loving detail, and will embrace you, metaphorically, (sometimes literally) like her long lost child.

On this occasion, I am greeted not by an elderly woman but by a large man with exceptionally good English. He takes me to my extremely convenient AirBnB, just spitting distance from the main entrance to the old walled city, and deposits me in my room.

Dubrovnik night

This is AirBnB Turd…as opposed to AirBnB Mango (you see here my careful and clever use of lexicographical juxtaposition to make a contrast)  which is my normal, and positive, experience of AirBnB. To be fair that is a slight exaggeration but, nevertheless, the apparently spacious and airy room/unit with shared bathroom, turns out to be a poky flat with four bedrooms each occupied by at least two people. Which, had Idiot Traveller read further down the page which gave the description, instead of just looking at the pictures, I would have known

Use of the bathroom and/or kitchen require reservations about three months ahead and don’t plan on turning around in the dining room at dinner time or you are likely to get disembowelled by a fellow guest holding a sharp cooking knife.

I spend only one of my four nights here as, fortunately, it was only available when I booked for a single night. My second AirBnB is several notches higher on the approval rating with access to a great terrace overlooking Dubrovnik, its own bathroom etc. and it’s cheaper, too.

Night falls on Dubrovnik at full moon

Exploring the nooks and crannies of Dubrovnik is a real pleasure for anyone with an appreciation of culture, architecture, history, ambience, fantastic views, good food and for a myriad other reasons. It’s not without its drawbacks as described here in my post The Balkans: Beauty and the Beast – from Dubrovnik to Sarajevo on my visit, in 2017.

Chief grumble, for me, apart from the obvious over-crowding and the fact that almost no local people can afford to live in the old city any more (thanks to people like me) is that the city walls, which in the day time swarm with a non-stop stream of people, don’t open until 8 am and close at 7.30 pm (earlier at certain times of year). Given that dawn and dusk are the optimum time to be on the walls this makes no sense at all. You can hear the wailing and gnashing of teeth of those refused access to the wall at the best times.

On the Dubrovnik walls at night

On the positive side, if you are prepared to risk life and limb, a quick shimmy up the walls in the south-eastern corner will allow you to get in free and avoid the crowds, as well as enjoying the best times of day. There is a silver lining to everything. So I found myself on top the wall, one evening, sharing the views and the soft evening light with two couples, one from Dubai and one Italian/Romanian couple.

This is one of the great places to enjoy sunset and dusk which, for me, came at the cost of just a pair of torn shorts. A slip on the pointed iron railings or off five metres of wall could have been more drastic.

Dubrovnik dawn

Dubrovnik is only a tiny part of the attraction of Croatia and, as with all of the world’s popular tourist attractions, a short trip away from the centre brings you to a largely deserted part of the Adriatic Coast.

The Adriatic Coast heading north – largely devoid of tourists (relatively speaking)

Having gorged myself on an overdose of old buildings and crowds that make Pitt St look like the Itidarod trail on a slack day,  I hire a scooter and head north-west along the Adriatic coast.

Once over the main bridge north, the traffic thins out and one has to resist the temptation, at age 60, to feel that one still has the reflexes of a young Michael Schumacher and that one is sitting on a Moto Guzzi, or similar rather than a scooter with notoriously bad cornering design. Still the curves are hard to resist as one slides down the roller-coaster road.

About an hour north of Dubrovnik is my destination for the day, Trsteno, and its Arboretum dating back to 1494. It sits just about the town’s jewel like harbour, a short walk down the road, where a handful of locals swim undisturbed by the, literally, millions of visitors to Dubrovnik less than an hour away.

Trsteno harbour and Aboretum

Dubrovnik has two million visitors a year of whom, it appears, about 75% visit in June, July and August. Each day brings a new swarm of 20,000 people to a town where the population is 28,000 and where you can walk from one end to the other in about five minutes.

Despite being well known, locally, it seems few tourists visit Trsteno even in the height of summer. This is another of the iron clad rules of tourism: more than a ten minute walk or a half hour drive and the visitation rate drops by 90%. Half cultural icon, stuffed full of old buildings and statues and half botanical marvel, the Arboretum Trsteno is one of those little gems that one should be prepared to travel for, with its old aqueduct that supplied water from the hills behind, its 150 year old trees scattered in among another 510 indigenous species.

Trsteno harbour and arboretum

I’ve seen other visitors comments complaining about the arboretum and saying that it is slightly run down. For me this is one of the attractions. The sort of down at heel, semi-neglected feel is precisely what gives it, its spirit and makes it well worth spending an hour or two.

The town features two other notable attractions: a beautifully crystal clear harbour to swim in and two of the largest old plane trees in Europe. At some 400 years old and nearly 50 metres tall they provide a great spot to sit and relax on a hot day. But take your helmet because a French tourist was killed by a falling branch a few years ago – arguably in revenge for Napoleon’s attempts to take Dubrovnik.

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By the old plane tree

From the gardens you can descend via a windy coast road to the small harbour below which is shared, largely, with a handful of locals cooling off in the clear and sheltered water of the harbour. To finish off the day you can return via some quiet inland villages which give one a different perspective to the coastal towns.

This is Part 14 of the blog series “97 Days Adrift in Europe”. Links to other episodes and related content can be found below:

  1. Part 6 – Travelling South
  2. Part 11 – Prague
  3. Part 12 – Travelling Crazy – Banks
  4. Part 13 – Budapest

The Flickr Archive of images used in this post can be found below:

  1. Croatia Coast (north of Dubrovnik)
  2. Zagreb
  3. Dubrovnik by Night
  4. Dubrovnik Dawn
  5. Dubrovnik general
  6. Dubrovnik Sunset and Moonrise

97 Days Adrift in Europe (Part 13) – Budapest

Many people will tell you that Budapest is their favourite city in Europe. Perhaps I didn’t look hard enough but it seemed less splendid than Prague and somewhat dull and jaded – that is until you look back at the photos and realise perhaps it wasn’t the city that is dull and jaded but the onlooker.

“Old Pest” – lots of beautiful buildings and street art

After a dozen cities and a myriad palaces, ancient bridges, tunnels, churches, squares and museums, one may get what I refer to as ‘Chateaux Fatigue’. It’s a syndrome bought on by travelling through parts of the world from which you would never escape were you to look at every magnificent building built between the birth of the Christ figure and about 1900. It can take other forms such as “Cathedral Fatigue”, “Gondola Fatigue” (Monty Python c. minute 9.25), “Roman Ruin Fatigue etc.

Cathedral fatigue? Too many bloody churches? St Stephen’s Basilica is better than many and has great views from the top

I first discovered this syndrome (there are myriad traveling syndromes) when passing through the Dordogne in France. To travel in the Dordogne is feel as if every person who had the money caught Chateaux OCD.

“What are you doing today, Louis?”.

“Oh, Jean-Paul, I thought I might build a chateau”

“But Louis you built four chateaux, last week…”

“I know, Jean-Paul, but the peasants are so lazy and what else can I spend their taxes on…?”

Every tiny town, village, estate, bend in the river and overblown princelet had their own chateau. Much like right wing politicians in Australia. “I feel bored with representing my constituents today, perhaps I shall start a political party. What shall I call it? Oh I know…..now what was my name?”. By the time you have been a week in the Dordogne, it’s “Oh look, another, 17th century chateau, how passé.”

I arrive in Budapest on a Sunday at Budapest-Keleti railway station. First impressions are of a very faded glory. The station is magnificent but no one remembered to brush its hair or cut its nails. It’s falling apart, grubby and has a slightly dingy feeling a bit like the surrounding part of Budapest.

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Budapest Keleti Station

In fact Budapest is two cities “Buda” on the left bank of the Danube and “Pest” on the right bank.

My brand new (as in just renovated) AirBnB is just 400 metres from the Danube which, for those interested in relatively useless facts, passes through 10 European countries. Is the Danube blue? Is it sunny? Is the ocean blue? Let’s see, apart from the bleeding obvious, which is that at night it is not blue, yes it can be blue. If it’s not in flood, if the sun is shining etc.

Blue Danube? Or black or grey

The point about the Danube is not its blueness but its role in myth, legend, history and culture. László Földényi, probably the only man in human history to have four diacritical letters in his name, describes its place in the European psyche beautifully in this blog from 2011 in which he describes the Danube thus:

“Blue, muddy yellow or blood-red: the colour of the Danube varies according to history and geography. Never able to truly form the countries through which it runs into a single political entity, it nevertheless connects peoples and regions reconcilable only in dreams or poetry.”

From my perch near the Danube, it’s an easy stroll down to the river and then along past Hungary’s Parliament which is built in Gothic revival style and then down to the Széchenyi Chain Bridge.

Like the Széchenyi Baths, the bridge is named after Count István Széchenyi who is often spoken of as the greatest ever Hungarian. Normally in European history this means that you killed a lot of innocent people, mainly nasty foreigners, although occasionally it’s your own mob, as in Stalin, Pol Pot. To be fair to Széchenyi he does appear to have been a reformer, albeit a conservative one, if that is not too contradictory.

More statues of blokes with guns, swords and horses than you can poke a stick at

Nowadays you don’t have to do anything to kill millions of people, if you are politician. You just do nothing, as per Australian politicians such as Abbott and Turnbull, who are deliberately and consciously consigning millions to death by doing nothing on climate change. Fortunately most of the people who will die (at least from the perspective of Abbott and Turnbull) are black, yellow or brown.

Somewhat ironically, in Australia, most of those who will suffer from climate change most will be rich and white since, in our great egalitarian society, the biggest losers will be mostly “white” and wealthy.  These are the only people who can afford to live near the coast or on large farms – the areas most likely to be significantly impacted by climate change.

On the other hand since their Ponzi schemes and family trusts will ensure they are wealthy enough to move away from the effects of climate change without too much ill effect perhaps they will avoid their fate.

The Hungarian Parliament buildings are a sort of poor man’s version of the UK Houses of Parliament but, nevertheless a striking building, especially at night when reflected in the Danube. Like most buildings of this type it is surrounded by statues – of men – men with guns, men on horses, men looking important. No women. If you aren’t killing or oppressing people you are not worthy of a statue. Underground on Parliament’s Kossoff Square there is a great little museum to the 1956 uprising which initially succeeded and was then, subsequently, suppressed by Soviet troops.

The Hungarian Parliament and the museum to the 1956 uprising

The first day of the Hungarian uprising, 23 October, was declared a national holiday at the inauguration of the Third Hungarian Republic in 1989. It would not be unreasonable to suggest that it is a somewhat better choice than Australia made with its Australia Day national holiday since the Hungarian day, in effect, celebrates liberation whereas Australia Day celebrates invasion and genocide.

But this celebration of death and disaster is a good Australian tradition. We also celebrate ANZAC day to signify our memory of the slaughter of tens of thousands of Turks, who died at double the rate of the combined Allied force, and the futile death of thousands of Australians – never mind the fact that it was a dismal, failed, campaign for the ANZACS (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps). 

In Australia, in future, we will, no doubt, celebrate 7 September 2013, as National Idiot Day, when millions of idiotic Australians voted for a another complete idiot who helped to destroy our climate and environment. And that is not accounting for the damage to the entire national psyche caused by witnessing that ex-Prime Minister in budgie smugglers.

Left, Tony Abbott, idiotic Australian ex-PM, psychologically damaged the entire nation. Right, time to have a proper understanding of our history

At Széchenyi Chain Bridge you can see the famous Yoga café. This is a very special Hungarian tradition involving a combined eating area and yoga class. When you have finished dinner and feel bloated and unwell you can work off your dinner with a free yoga class adjacent. In case this makes you feel unwell buckets are provided.

Alternatively, if you do yoga first and feel hungry, rescue is at hand. In Hungary the Yoga Café chain is more popular than McDonalds. In fact the term “chain” came from this cafe which opened next to the chain bridge and were the world’s first “chain” of restaurants¹

Left the famous Széchenyi Chain Bridge and right the even more famous Yoga Chain Restaurant

My remaining three days in Hungary are taken up with exploring the the old city on the Pest side of Budapest, Buda and Pest having been two completely separate cities until the Széchenyi  Bridge was built, as well as travelling upriver to visit Szentendre which was the centre of the Serbian community in Hungary, though only about 100 Serbs remain, today. It seems that others were latterly as unpleasant to the Serbs as they have been to others.

When the Serbs fled from Kosovo and southern regions of Serbia in fear of Turkish revenge the Austrian emperor Leopold I allowed Serbian refugees to cross the Danube in 1690, and during that period, many Serbian families settled in the region around Budapest. Szentendre, known as Sentandreja (Сентандреја) in Serbian, thus became the religious, cultural and political centre of Serbs in Hungary. They were later persecuted in World Wars 1 and 2 and most fled back to Serbia.

Szentendre: lots of Serbian Orthodox church glitter plus artists markets

Szentendre is on the Danube River, north of Budapest and reached by a one hour local train ride. It’s known for its baroque architecture, churches, colourful houses and narrow, cobbled streets. The main square, Fő Tér, and the alleyways around it are lined with art galleries, museums and shops. Just off the square, the 18th-century Greek Orthodox Blagovestenska Church are worth a visit for the elaborate decor and an ornate partition screen.

The old city of Pest is architecturally stunning and St Stephen’s Basilica and the Opera House certainly give nothing away to any other cathedral or opera house…providing you are a fan of gold and glitz. The upper parts of the cathedral also provide stunning views over the Danube and the old city. Even so, Prague still has my vote.

The Budapest Opera House. Hungarians reckon no other can hold a candle to it

My last day in Budapest takes me down to Heroes Square. It’s a half an hour walk from my AirBnB. This area is half tourist trap and half locals hang-out, but is a must-visit area of Budapest. Here in the City Park, one of Budapest’s largest inner city parks, you can find not only the said Heroes, on their horses, but Széchenyi Baths, the largest medicinal bath in Europe, Vajdahunyad Castle on its lake, the Zoo and Botanical Gardens and two museums, the Kunstalle Art Gallery (contemporary art) and the Museum of Fine Art. And you can easily get there via Metro to the Széchenyi station on the M1 (yellow line).

Vajdahunyad Castle is yet another monument to nationalism, Christianity and war – and their brother, genocide and persecution. One could argue that Christianity and war are pretty much the same – or at least cause and effect. The castle was built in 1896 as part of the Millennial Exhibition which celebrated the 1,000 years of Hungary and Magyar history since the Hungarian Conquest of the Carpathian Basin in 895. In its juxtaposition with Heroes Square, built at the same time one is left in no doubt about the role of men in nationalism and the associated blood and gore.

Vajdhunyad Castle and Heroes Square. More monuments to militarism

From an egalitarian point of view the sole redeeming feature of Heroes Square (apart from artistic value) is that when the monument was originally constructed the last five spaces on the left of the colonnade were reserved for members of the ruling Habsburg dynasty. The Habsburg emperors, in a fit of democracy, were replaced with Hungarian freedom fighters when the monument was rebuilt after World War II.

The Zoo & Botanical Garden is the oldest in Hungary and one of the oldest in the world. It has 1,072 animal species. It you enjoy seeing imprisoned animals this one is for you. Although parts are fine most of the larger animals are kept in enclosures that are in poor condition and are unacceptably small.

You can spend most of the day here wandering around City park and its environs but the Idiot Traveller warning here is: keep an eye on the time. In true style I came here primarily for the magnificent Széchenyi thermal baths but reached the entrance just as they were closing.

For my sins I came face to face with a remnant of East European customer service in the person of a very large, very unfriendly, cross between a staff member and a concentration camp guard who simply shouted at me when I attempted to ask her simple questions about entering the baths.

There are 18 baths in total, their water supplied by two thermal springs, their temperature is 74 °C and 77 °C, but the actual pool temperatures vary between 18° and  up to 40°c in the “medicinal” pools.

Stirred but not shaken by my encounter with a remnant of communist era customer service I head off back to my AirBnB to prepare for my departure for Croatia. Maybe that bastion of fascism will have better customer service than the ex-Soviet Union Hungary does.


¹This is known as “fake news” or alternatively “alternative facts” and is introduced here to ensure this blog is up to date with the latest trends.

This is Part 13 of the blog series “97 Days Adrift in Europe”. Links to other episodes and related content can be found below:

  1. Part 6 – Travelling South
  2. Part 11 – Prague
  3. Part 12 – Travelling Crazy – Banks

The Flickr Archive of images used in this post can be found below:

  1. Budapest: Liberty Square
  2. Budapest: Detail
  3. Budapest Opera House
  4. Budapest: Old City
  5. Budapest: St Stephen’s Basilica
  6. Szentendre

 


			

97 Days Adrift in Europe (Part 12 – travelling crazy; banks)

Aside from the most obvious perils of traveling overseas such as lost passports, lost cameras, lost phones and lost minds, travel offers one of the great pleasures of life – some of the best Catch 22s that you can possibly experience. These include things such as the phone that doesn’t work, where your phone company tells you that the only way in which you can solve this problem is to call the phone company – on the phone that doesn’t work.

So they tell you that you need to pay a surcharge to allow you to speak to them at extra expense but in order to change that, a change to set up is required which itself requires the account holder to speak to them – an account holder who happens to be in another country because the rules won’t allow you to purchase a sim card without a residential address in Europe and so you needed to purchase the sim card via them – and they are not with you. You could, of course pay for the account holder to fly from Russia to Istanbul. Or pretend to impersonate the Russian account holder and speak to the operator in heavily accented English explaining you have forgotten all your Russian because you’ve been living in Turkey for too long.

There’s the TV with the remote in Turkish and the manual in Turkish that explains clearly, in Turkish, how to change the language or sub-titles to English. And you can’t even shout at the TV because clearly the TV in its current mode only speaks Turkish so shouting at it in English won’t make any difference. Perhaps if you kick it with Turkish shoes on that might work.

The car hire firm where only one of you has a licence but the money to pay is on the other person’s credit card but you can only pay on the card of the person hiring the car. Or the WhatsApp calls you can’t receive because you registered your European number so that you can speak to people with that number but no one with your Australian number can now call you because like a dickhead you forgot to alert them, beforehand, to the fact that you were changing your number.

And then there is dealing with the BANK……

There was a time long long ago….when you just took travellers cheques, went into the nearest bank and got your money out….and when your bills arrived at home you got someone to drop in, open the letter and pay the bill for you. Now……

You open your email. There it is lurking obscenely and darkly. The third item email on the list. “The Unforeseen Invoice”. Ok no problem, you open your internet banking…payee, amount, press pay. The pop up appears. A code is required. Please request a code.

Damn….you remember you changed your sim card from your Australian one to your Europe-wide one and forgot to change your phone number. Your Australian sim card is back in the UK where you left it when you got the new one.

No problem, let’s change the number. Open your banking admin interface, click on code authorisation, click on enter new phone number. No problem. Press save. The pop up appears. A code is required, please request a code to authorise a change of authorised phone number. Damn. Fuck. Catch 22. Swear at bank. Walk around room. Swear at computer. Swear at stupid people from IT who don’t seem to understand that people do leave the country and use other phone numbers.

Open secure email interface. Write email explaining situation and suggesting that they need to do something which avoids such a Catch 22. Wait 24 hours.

24 hours passes. Open your computer. Open internet banking. Open secure email interface.

“Thank you for your email. Unfortunately we cannot change your phone number for you without authorisation. However you may download our secure authorisation app from the internet. Once you have installed this app, it will supply you with a code which you an use to authorise transactions without the need to receive an SMS to your authorised phone number.

Great, no problem.

Go to your mobile.

Search on PlayStore. Find relevant app. Download app. Install App. Open App.

Message: Please enter your code. To receive a code please request a code from your bank which will be sent to your authorised phone number. Fuck. Damn. Fuck. Catch 22/2. Swear at bank. Walk around room. Swear at computer. Swear at stupid people from IT who don’t seem to understand that people do leave the country and use other phone numbers. Catch 22/2.

Open secure email interface. Write email explaining situation and suggesting that they need to do something which avoids Catch 22 and Catch 22/2. Wait 24 hours.

24 hours passes. Open your computer. Open internet banking. Open secure email interface.

“Thank you for your email. Unfortunately we cannot authorise the App for you. Please call us on phone number xxxxxxxxxx and we will arrange to confirm your identity and then authorise the App over the phone.”

Calculate; 15 minute phone call. Excess roaming charges. Potential cost more than I’m prepared to pay. Cannot call Australia. Catch 22/3

Open secure email interface. Write email explaining situation and suggesting that they need to do something which avoids Catch 22 and Catch 22/2 and Catch 22/3. Wait 24 hours.

24 hours passes. Open your computer. Open internet banking. Open secure email interface.

“Thank you for your email. Please supply us with a phone number on which one of our customer service officers can reach you during working hours. They will then step you through the process to authorise the App.

Respond on secure email interface. Write email giving phone number. Wait 24 hours.

Sometime in another time and place (actually while driving along the freeway). Phone rings. Check wing mirrors, check main mirror, scrutinise road ahead, check cars around for sign of unmarked police car. Ok, no worries. Answer phone. “Chris here”. “Mr Harris, this is xxxxx from Bank xxxx. I hope I’m not disturbing you at an inconvenient moment.”

Client (me) breaks into spasm of silent mirthless laughter and just avoids colliding with large petrol tanker, before swerving off road, pulling up and saying…

“No not all, I was just driving but I’ve pulled off the road…”

“Brilliant. I understand you want me to authorise you to install our online authorisation App”

Client (me)…sotto voce “No I want you to fucking authorise me to shoot Donald Trump….”. In louder voice “Yes, thanks”

“Ok, thank you Sir. I’ll just ask you a few questions to identify you.”

Five minutes later, and some 80 plus hours after first trying to perform a simple internet banking operation, I am able to pay my bill.

This is Part 12 of the blog series “97 Days Adrift in Europe”. Links to other episodes and related content can be found below:

97 Days adrift in Europe (Part 11 – Prague)

I leave Berlin for Prague and Budapest, appropriately, from Ostbahn Hof, which used to be the main terminal in East Berlin, before the Wall fell. Like many things in Berlin it’s been modernised and scrubbed up, but it seems like an appropriate place from which to head to eastern Europe.

For whatever reason these two cities are inextricably linked in my mind. I’m not sure if it’s because travellers often compare them, because of their Eastern European history linked by the uprisings of 1956 and 1968, in respectively, Hungary and the then Czechoslovakia.

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Along the Elbe River

It’s about three hours from Berlin to Prague following the line of the Elbe river. I retreat into my train cocoon and absorb the passing scenery – sufficiently beautiful, in parts, to make certain that one has a seat on the left hand side when travelling to Prague.

Prague’s station, Praha hlavní nádraží has been converted into a huge soul-less barn of a station; upstairs a small piece of the original old station that has not been gutted remains, in the shape of a large ornate dome.

Arriving at a new station, I follow a standard routine. First money. Then I find the address to which I want to go on my phone or failing having a phone available, I write the address, phone number and any instructions I have in my notebook. Finally, find the information centre and get a public transport map, a general map, the relevant ticket and, showing them the smartphone map, I get specific instructions about how to get from the station to the destination.

Finally, find a cafe and sit for 15 minutes to study the maps and directions so that I feel completely orientated in the city. This is the other side of the idiot traveller. I may have none of my possessions due to my propensity to lose my possessions all over the world but I know where I am going even without them. I’m not sure if I am a future archeologists gift or nightmare. There are literally hundreds of my toothbrushes, combs, reading glasses, power adaptors, bottles of sunscreen, soap and miscellaneous other items scattered from Macchu Pichu to Broken Hill.

My first day in Prague is largely lost to the French lurgi, as are half of each of the succeeding two days. But this is not problematic as my AirBnb is a fine place to hang out. Spacious, cool and with good Wifi allowing me to pass the time writing and streaming videos.

The flat is run by two sisters, Kristýna and Anna. The official host, Kristýna is away so I am met by Anna, whom her sister has described as “My very nice sister, Anna”. I tell Anna this but she denies she is very nice and says it is her sister who is nice. So my expectations are high since both sisters think the other one is nice – at least one might be.

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Part of the Kampa Museum exhibition

As it turns out those expectations are not misplaced, especially after Kristýna Kůstková returns. It turns out she is an

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Street art in Prague

opera singer who has been away at a music festival . Likewise Anna’s boyfriend, who also materialises, is an opera singer. So in my lurgi-ridden state I am serenaded by arias in the afternoon (to listen go here).

Prague is an excellent city. The combination of its setting on the Vltava River, its music, both formal and street, its squares, buildings, museums, street art, public transport and general accessibility make it a pleasure to visit. Moreover, it has variety from the broad avenues of the new town, the narrow laneways of the old town and everything in between.

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Sculpture in the gardens of the Museum Kampa
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Interior of St Vitus Cathedral, Prague Castle

On Friday I head over to do a random foot tour of the city. This is always an excellent way to get a feel for the city because you largely avoid the tourist hot spots. Essentially you just plot a rough route and head off without any planned destinations – the end result being that you bump into many things you would not have normally seen, from sculptures, to museums.

By midday I have circled around to the centre of Prague’s tourism, the Charles Street Bridge and the old town square. As often the highlights of that part of town are not the things one expects but other things, such as buskers, street performers and choirs; the latter practicing their routine in one of the churches off the main town square. In the main square an NGO from South Korea is giving a dance performance highlighting the unresolved issue of the so-called “Comfort Women”, who were abducted and kept as sexual slaves by Japanese soldiers.

Like many other European cities, Prague, suffers from the ‘Plague’ in the form of hundreds of thousands of tourists but, in common with everywhere around the world, the saving grace is that humans are, largely, bone idle. Go early, go late or go off the beaten track and you can have the place, largely, to yourself.

Sunday is my last day in Prague. Fortunately the lurgi appears to have decamped back to France, and I’m finally able to have a full day. So, following the 7/15 rule of travel I leave the flat at 5.30 am. For those unaware the 7/15 rule goes like this. For every hour after 7 am the number of people at key tourist spots increases by 15%. Conversely after 6pm the reverse occurs.

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Charles St Bridge, taken from Prague Castle at Peak Tourist. Like lemmings
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Peak Tourist at Prague Castle

Prior to 6 am you are at less than 5% of peak tourist. By 7 am you will find around 15% of the peak number of tourists. At 8 am, 30%, at 9 am, 45%. Peak tourist by this definition is reached around 12-12.45 pm. This is a time of day to be avoided at all cost. Peak tourist continues until around 6pm with little apparent diminution. But by 7 pm numbers are down by 15% and this continues until, by midnight, you are at 10% of peak tourist. There are exceptions, of course, some very popular sites (Colosseum, Rome), reach peak tourist earlier. Others such as party destinations remain at peak later.

There are also other variations on this rule. These are places which, although they follow the numbers formula, have an exception called the Vomit Variation. It’s a bit akin to a cordon bleu restaurant except in reverse. The quantity may be small at a good restaurant but the quality is good and tasteful. By contrast the tourist Vomit Variation rules that the number of tourists may be small but the quality is invariably low.

In Prague you must apply the Vomit Variation because it is a party destination. Although there are few people about at 5.30 am, those that remain are best avoided. They are the latter day equivalent of the Huns, Goths or Mongol hordes. Found in large groups, loud, wild, frequently savage, lacking in any semblance of culture, frequently semi-naked, boorish, usually smelly. Invariably male, invariably British. They can be found staggering the streets, vomiting in corners or gathered outside MacShit or Kentucky Fried Cat. A hazard to any normal human being, they should be confined to soccer stadiums or Guantanamo Bay.

Like cockroaches and other lower life forms, they are best avoided. When seen, cross to the other side of the road and fondle your can of Mace. In the absence of Mace you may brandish a book, preferably non-fiction, since this is reputed to act in the same way that a cross effects vampires. If you are certain they are English wave a copy of the EU’s Schengen treaty at them. With any luck this will instantaneously transport them back to Xenophobia Island.

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Prague at dawn
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Charles St Bridge at dawn

I arrive at the Charles St Bridge, probably Prague’s most famous landmark at 6 am. It’s dawn and, in contrast to peak tourist when the bridge is awash with many hundreds of tourists, there are no more than 20-30 people on the bridge. Of these about half are photographing themselves rather than the bridge or the sunrise.

Studiously ignoring 2000 years of history and a Gaia’s worth of natural beauty they are taking their 200th photo of themselves this week, assuming you judge Sunday to be the first day of the week. I am always tempted to carry a pair of bolt-cutters and like some latter day Luddite, I will tear around the hordes of tourists disembowelling their selfie sticks and saving them from a future irredeemably damaged by narcissism. Failing that I will recommend they go into politics where their narcissism may serve a useful purpose – at least for them.

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Go the Swans

From the bridge, I am wander the empty back streets of Prague’s Mala Strana district, heading upriver from where the Charles Street bridge and it’s small army of sculpted figures is best appreciated.

Down by the river there is a flotilla of swans. Go the Swans (for non-Australians see here and here). Looking back the bridge is reflected in the river’s dawn light. I make my way up the hill towards Prague Castle and the Cathedral. As I go I pass the Pissing Fountain where two male figures rotate, urinating in the small pond beneath them and spelling out famous lines from local writers. Someone was taking the piss.

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The Royal Palace. Vladivas Hall – still one of the largest ceilings of its type in the world

By the time I arrive at the top of the hill, it is already 9 am. I detour via the Castle grounds so by the time I arrive in the castle proper it is 9.45 am. Prague Castle also does not quite follow the 7/15 rule and is already inundated with a torrent of tourists.

The line to get into the famous St Vitus Cathedral, which opens at 10 am is around 100 metres long. My queue phobia kicks in and I wander off to look at other parts of the castle. This includes the old 10th century royal palace of which a A highlight of the palace is Vladislav Hall. It is from here that one of the famous defenestrations took place (see below).

Prague Castle is more like a small city than a castle. Sitting above the city and the river it is reputed to be the world’s largest castle. For more than two centuries when Prague was, arguably, the most important city in Europe, it was the seat of the Holy Roman Empire under Charles IV and his successors.

Charles made Prague his capital, and he rebuilt the city on the model of Paris, establishing the New Town (Nové Město). In 1348, he founded the Charles University in Prague, which was named after him and was the first university in Central Europe.

This served as a training ground for bureaucrats and lawyers. Soon Prague emerged as the intellectual and cultural center of Central Europe. Prague remained one one of the most important cities in Europe until around 1620 and was the capital of the empire under the Hapsburgs between 1583 and 1611.

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St Vitus Cathedral – some of the finest stained glass windows you will ever see.
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St Vitus – stained glass windows

Prague Castle was the site of two of the famous defenestrations (from the French fenetre meaning window, so literally de-windowed) starting with the first when the nobles threw the empire’s bureaucrats from the windows. There were two subsequent defenestrations.

You can read about these here. I favour this technique for future Australian elections since this seems infinitely more interesting than voting. All MPs who have lied, cheated on expenses or committed violations of human or civil rights are simply defenestrated.

The most famous of these was the second defenestration when two vice-regents of the Bohemian throne (ruled by the Austrian Hapsburg emperor in remote Vienna) and some governors of Czech lands (also German Catholics) were tossed into the moat after they delivered a letter that sought to remove the religious freedoms of Protestant Czech nobles

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St Vitus Cathedral

Within the castle walls is one of Europe’s finest cathedrals and it is this that dominates the entire castle and the city skyline. By the time I return to the cathedral the line for entry has reduced to about 20 metres. This is within my queue tolerance. There is no doubt that the building is quite magnificent although in common with many of these famous, large, churches the tranquility which is, perhaps, the most important part of the aura of religious buildings is ruined by the numbers. Of all the aspects of the cathedral the most impressive are the enormous and intricately detailed stained glass windows which are the equal of any I have seen.

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Golden Lane, house of Joseph Kazda

Leaving Prague Castle one passes by Golden Lane, a row of 16th century dwellings. They were originally built as homes for castle servants, marksmen and possibly goldsmiths – hence the name.

The homes were occupied until World War II and Franz Kafka lived at No. 22 for a brief time. Other famous occupants include, writer and nobel prize winner, Jaroslav Seifert, and one of the Czech Republic’s historians and film collectors, Joseph Kazda, who saved thousands of Czech films from the Nazis.

Now it’s on to Budapest

Links to all Prague images: Prague Castle; Prague Cathedral; Prague Detail; Prague Music and Events

This is Part 11 of the blog series “97 Days Adrift in Europe”. Links to other episodes and related content can be found below:

  1. Part 6 – Travelling South

97 Days Adrift in Europe (Part 10 – Berlin)

Ah, Berlin the beautiful, the bold, the brutal, the bizarre….

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The Oberbaumbrucke, the famous bridge on the Spree.

Everyone told me that Berlin was a great city to visit and they weren’t wrong. If only Australian cities were more like Berlin (or indeed other cities in Europe). Bike paths everywhere, masses of green open space, street art, rivers and canals, great museums, car drivers that are courteous and watchful, great public transport.

Of course, not everything is great and Australian cities have some parts of all of these things, quite apart from infinitely better weather. The Germans are maddeningly, annoyingly law abiding and conformist (though not so much in Berlin). Even the countryside is neat and well ordered, such that even the cows have specially assigned spaces in which they may sit down, neatly numbered and with clear instructions (in several languages) forbidding them to sit in any other space.

Germans don’t have as many ridiculous laws as Australians but the ones they do have they obey as if they are tablets from heaven. In my humble opinion there is few things (Peter Dutton, Joe Hockey etc aside) so ridiculous as two large groups of automatons poised expectantly at either side of an entirely empty road waiting for a little green electronic man to tell them they may cross the road. It gave me great delight to blithely cross against every possible red light, knowing that this would annoy the assembled automatons no end.

I arrive in Berlin late on a Friday afternoon, from Amsterdam. The train ride takes 6 hours and arrives neither a minute early, nor late. I am yet again travelling first class, courtesy of Eurail which, apparently, believes that anyone either rich or old, or both, is unable to endure the discomfort of second class or, alternatively, needs to return some of the ill-gotten gains of the baby boomers to the poor of Europe via first class rail fares. I shall raid my Panama account again. I am staying with Bill Hare, partner Ursula Fuentes and family having decided to grace them with my presence some 15 years after I last saw Bill, in Amsterdam.

I have picked up some annoying French lurgi which I am, no doubt, giving to everyone with whom I come in contact. It works a bit like the French bureaucracy; it’s incredibly annoying, makes the host body very inefficient but is not deadly enough to actually stop it functioning. Hence I continue to drag myself around, occasionally feeling better and then doing just sufficiently too much to feel completely crap the next day. This means I am unable to do anything but either sleep or sit in cafés drinking coffee and reading a book. I think I shall call it the enforced relaxation lurgi, the one drawback being that it creates a host of little spiders in my scalp who alternately pull it tight and/or hit it with miniature hammers and when they get bored with that they squeeze my left eyeball.

Berlin, is in some senses, the personification (if a city can be a person) of the history of the last 150 years. It is here that many of the great events of Europe, at least, are written in the flesh of the city. Intuitively, if you have studied history, you know that, but visiting Berlin makes it much clearer.

That history is encapsulated in the short walk from the Brandenburg gate, celebrating Prussia’s victory over France in 1870 – and itself a symbol of the dominance of the military in that part of German history – which led to both WW1 and WW2, to the the Reichstag building where the German Bundestag (Parliament) sits.

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The TV tower in East Berlin – built as a symbol of East Germany’s technology. West Berliners argued the cross visible on the side was the West’s revenge

The latter you can view as a symbol of the reunification of Berlin and Germany, and the creation of a relatively unified Europe, symbolised, more than anything by the giant EU flag flying over the now reconstructed Reichstag. The reconstructed Reichstag building, itself a symbol of German power , lay abandoned and empty from 1945 until 1990 when reconstruction started after reunification. It’s somewhat ironic that the giant glass dome was a designed by British architect, Lord Norman Foster, and sits just a few hundred metres from the embassy of the Brexits.

I have decided my entire trip around Europe shall be by train, in between cities, and largely on foot within cities. This poses somewhat of a challenge, since apart from the French Lurgi (which in my mind has now become a proper noun), my body has adopted a policy of rotational notification of early degeneration and approaching death. When my ski damaged right knee is working properly, my right ankle is not. Or my left. And when all three of those problematic joints decide to have a day off from giving me the complete shits, some other random part of the body decides that it will annoy the crap out of me.

Nevertheless being descended from good Welsh mining stock (or at least those bits of Welsh mining stock that worked in offices) I ignore these travails in order to make certain that I die fully informed on European history.

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Street art and semi derelict buildings; everywhere in Berlin

I’ve arrived on a weekend so there is time to socialise with my hosts. As befits all well balanced individuals this includes a mixture of cultural activities from the low brow – jazz in a small well-hidden enclave off the backstreets, where our fellow audience members are a cross between residual unreconstructed hippies, bikies, hipsters and a minority of baby boomers who appear to have accidentally stumbled on somewhere they don’t really belong. Following this we go upmarket for the quarter-final of the Euros (soccer) between Germany and Italy. This takes place in one of the unreconstructed remnants of East Germany, where you can sit on a deck chair and peer around the pole blocking ones view of anything other than the outside quarter of the screen.

On Sunday Bill and Ursula take me on a guided tour around Berlin following the route of the Berlin Wall. It’s four of us, including son, Max (actually probably not Max but I can’t remember), since Elsa is otherwise engaged. The Hare/Fuentes clan live close to the centre of Berlin and it’s just a short ride to the East Side Gallery the longest preserved part of the wall. Beyond this the wall is marked randomly and irregularly by twin lines of cobblestones in the road.

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The route of the Berlin Wall; in Berlin style it often disappears

The wall is hard to follow in places disappearing, as it does, under footpaths and buildings and only sporadically signposted. “That’s Berlin for you” my cycling companions comment. That attitude is fairly widespread in Germany, even in Berlin, and reflects a view that Berlin is poor (well everything is relative), somewhat inefficient and haphazard. It’s a bit the same attitude that many Romans and other Italians have about Rome. This apparently explains the fact that the Spree which flows through Berlin, is more like a a sewer line with a bit of added water than the other way around. Ursula explains that there have been plans to clean the Spree for years but Berlin has never had the money.

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Berlin Wall; the kiss (Brezhnev and Honecker)

The enormous exertions of the weekend, 45 kilometres around Berlin lead to the “Return of the Lurgi, Part 3” and I spend Monday morning lying in bed squeezing that part of my head that feels like an over-tensioned steel drum. By lunchtime aided by Mother’s little Helper I creep out of my bed and head for the Berlin Wall. My visit was intended to let me look at the art work on Eastside Gallery which is a 1.3 kilometre long gallery of art panels relating to the wall and contemporary German and world history (see images here). But while the artwork on the wall is sometimes startling and always interesting, the back of the wall was the bit that absorbed my attention.

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Victims of the Syrian War

Here photographer, Kai Wiedenhöfer, assembled an exhibition called “WARonWALL“. The exhibition focuses on the legacy of the war for the individuals maimed by it. As Wiedenhöfer says “It is a paradox of war that the injury of a single person makes the biggest impression on us; the one whose face we can see, the one whose name and fate we can actually recall. The bigger the number of the victims the less we are touched emotionally. Instead of increasing our consternation, large numbers somehow numb the reality of it. Numbers are abstract – people are not.”

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The destruction of Kobane

The exhibition documents the story of families and individuals whose lives have been uprooted by the war and the complete and utter destruction of towns such as Kobane that are now little more than rubble. You can see some of Wiedenhöfer’s images here including the accompanying stories and here you can see some images of Kobane before, during and after the siege.

The reality in Berlin, is that everywhere you look the city is touched by the history of conflict, the Wall, the still deserted empty spaces either wide of the wall known as “No Man’s Land”, which escapees had to cross to get into West Berlin, the still abandoned buildings and factories, the Jewish Museum, the recreated Checkpoint Charlie, the memorials to those who died trying to escape, the Russian War Memorial, the museum of the former home of the SS, documented in the Museum, The Topography of Terror.

The following morning I take another run past the East Side Gallery into downtown Berlin. I pass the Springer Building where Die Bild is published, Germany’s somewhat feeble attempt to imitate “The Australian”. It is right wing, broadsheet in size but tabloid in size and content. Just like the Australian, in fact.  Bild has been described as “notorious for its mix of gossip, inflammatory language, and sensationalism” and as having a huge influence on German politicians.

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Jewish War Memorial
The scream
Munch’s The Scream

From here I pass onto the Jewish museum. I find the Museum somewhat disappointing except for a startling installation which features thousands of faces cut out from steel plate and lying on the floor. Walking on these thousands of faces the sightless eyes stare up like something out of Munch’s “The Scream“. Eerie and evocative.

On my way back my unplanned cycle trip takes me back along one of Berlin’s surprise canals which pop up where you least expect them and onto Museum Island where there are five of Berlin’s major museums. Perhaps the most surprising thing about Berlin is the 190 kilometres of canals which one can stumble across in the most unexpected places and by following them get yourself completely bushwacked. Still no problem; as you push your bike through someone’s backyard and they give you a strange look, you just make certain that it appears that you always intended to go that way, smile nicely and move on.

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SpreePark, the extinction of the dinosaurs

One of Berlin’s abandoned places is SpreePark the former East German amusement park which lies just across the river from Bill and Ursula’s place. Today it stands shuttered, fenced and theoretically protected by guards and dogs. Every two metres a sign warns of the risks of entering, “Danger of Death”. It’s one of those must-see destinations, screened and warned off, it is like a beacon. So armed with camera, backpack and water I make my way there. Aside from a fascinating history of fraud, escape, opening, closure, fire and fun it, like most deserted places it has a magnetism emanating from the way nature reclaims the derelict spaces of humans, the ability to have such places entirely to oneself, the risk and the fact that entry is illegal. I crawl under the fence around 11 am having parked my bike by the river.

Entry involves sticking ones head under the fence and then levering ones body underneath by pulling on the fence above. Usually at this point I would manage to injure something, tear my clothes or have my wallet slip, un-noticed into the dirt. But for once I escape my own incompetence. Once in your pull your pack behind you. To all intents and purposes the park is completely deserted. There is no sound except the wind and the odd door moving in the wind. And the quietly revolving Ferris Wheel which spins on and on, with a grinding, whimpering sound, empty and forlorn, awaiting its next passenger. Today little remains of the park which has been progressively emptied of its sights, damaged by fire, and vandalised.

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Abandoned water ride, SpreePark
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SpreePark, ferris wheel

The Government has increased security to ensure no repeats of the scandalous incident from summer 2013, when a 90-year-old woman broke into SpreePark and had to be rescued from the Ferris wheel after the wind carried her up but not back down again. “It used to be so nice here,” she said. “I simply wanted another go.”

If you stayed off the main tracks and kept your eyes open you could stay for hours in the haven of the park, poking around. For me, my tenure ended after an hour when, expecting security to be on foot, I was taken by surprise by fast arriving men on mountain bikes. A quick-fire interrogation took place. Where was I from? Hadn’t I seen the signs? Every two metres? How could I miss them? Signs in English too!!

Now comes the point of double bluff. “Have you taken any photos? You must cut them”.  He knows he has no authority to demand I do this. But I don’t want to antagonise him. This demand is repeated three times. I go the double-feint. “Why don’t you just let people in and give tours. The Government could make money.”  Sure enough that             distraction is enough and he launches into a dissertation of dangers; drowning in the water train, falling off the ferris wheel etc  I.D is demanded. I produce my Australian passport. “Australian? We capture many Australians here but you are the first that carries a passport. My passport is taken away to have its details transcribed. Then: “How did you get in?”.  I indicate the direction. “The big hole?”. Yes that one. “You come under the fence? Are you a dog?” I’m not quite sure of the corollary between the two statements but figure that non-smartassery is the order of the day.

“What happens now?” I ask “We send your details to the Police”. Hmm. “And then?” I ask. “They do nothing because they are too busy…now we go”. I’m escorted to the main gate. The two of them shake my hand; “Have a nice holiday in Berlin.”

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The weeping woman at the Russian War Memorial

On my way back I visit the Russian War Memorial. Before the Soviet Union built the Stalingrad memorial this was the world’s

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Russian War Memorial, Berlin

largest Russian memorial. It’s massive and very Russian and masculine in its glorification of heroic figures and with the single weeping woman. But impressive also. 80,000 Russians died during the Battle for Berlin and 2000 are buried there. My day is run. My French lurgi has returned to cast me back to bed.

The Russian memorial turns out to be my last bit of Berlin other than dinner with the Hare/Fuentes. My final day is also laid waste by French lurgi and I abandon ideas of extensive tours of unseen bits of the city. Dinner is however worth waiting for and disproves a theory that anyone who once drank cask wine cannot appreciate good wine. Visiting Jonathan West, once, in Canberra, he refused to serve me anything better than a mediocre wine on the basis that if I was prepared to drink cask wine then offering anything more than a mediocre wine was like casting pearls before swine.

Berlin passes…at 9 am, next morning, I am on my way to Prague

This is Part 10 of the blog series “97 Days Adrift in Europe”. Links to other episodes and related content can be found below:

  1. Part 6 – Travelling South

Images from this post can be found on the Flickr archive as follows:

  1. Berlin Spreepark
  2. Berlin Wall – art
  3. Russian War Memorial
  4. Berlin Wall – Syrian War exhibition
  5. Berlin Jewish Museum
  6. Berlin General

 

 

97 Days Adrift in Europe (Part 9 – France, Annecy)

I decide to go to Annecy after Aix and Nimes; it’s a suitably random decision a bit like the answer to the question about why you climbed Everest….”Because it was there”.

The best form of travel follows no logical pattern, is ideally not pre-planned; it follows no timetable. This mode of travel is increasingly hard to do since following this system inevitably involves significantly higher costs, the likelihood that you will end up sleeping on the streets, at worst, and that you will spend in excess of half of your holiday standing in lines to see things for which, had you pre-booked or pre-planned, you could have bought tickets for in advance.

Gallic shrug, hands upturned, pursed lips
I know nothing; purse the lips, Gallic shrug, upturned hands

There is a solution, however, to the nightmare of tourist queues and that is to either (a) ignore all the famous places and just look at them from the outside or (b) climb under, through or over any relevant fence or wall; something which has the added benefit that, if you do it early in the morning or evening, you get to spend the best time of day in places completely free of the teeming hordes.

The downside of the illegal entry is getting caught by security. But, if you do get caught the solution is easy.  You adopt the French technique: shrug, put out your hands, palm upwards, purse your lips and declare yourself unable to speak anything other than simply English. Above all, plead ignorance. If the security guard points to the large sign in English saying “Forbidden to xxxx”, you shrug again, shake your cane with its white tip, put back on your dark glasses and shuffle off tapping the ground.

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Preparing the drone

But first I must actually get to Annecy…the trains and buses are expensive and long-winded. So I decide on Bla Bla car. This is not some form of talking, self-driving car but the French car sharing system in which, for about a quarter what you might otherwise pay, you go from A to B. The downside to cheap car-sharing is the risk of sharing a car with a suicidal maniac, a person who has bad body odour or breath, believes that the best way to fill in every spare second is to talk non-stop.

You can, of course, ignore the avid talker with a stony silence but usually when he/she gets no reply the tend to nod or prod you thus disturbing your imminent decline into sleep. Failing all of the above you run the risk of spending the entire trip listening to the virtues of Marie Le Pen and how all blacks should go back to Algeria, Senegal or wherever else they came from. That is the price of car-sharing socialism.

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Flying the drone

But my trip turns out to be the archetype of almost all my French experiences. The driver is friendly and drives normally and my fellow passenger is a very tall Frenchman who, despite being more than 10-15 centimetres taller than me, insists on sitting in the back so that I can get the view better of the passing countryside.

He is a photographer and, leaving aside the pleasures of the passing scenery, one of the highlights of the trip is flying his drone during our lunch break. This is where all the latent boy genes come to the fore….high tech toys which are super noisy and allow one to behave something like a formula one driver. Perfect and with the added benefit of annoying the shit out of everyone passing or just relaxing nearby. The aerial equivalent of jet skis.

We arrive in Annecy in the late afternoon. It’s hot, we are late, the traffic is like Victoria Road, Sydney on a bad day and I have pissed off my host by not letting him know soon enough that we would be late. Hence he came home from work especially to let me in only to find out it was a wasted trip. The end result, when I do get there, is that I am super-heated by the 35° day, super-stressed by my lateness and with a brain made mushy by the long day and combination of heat and stress.

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The chateau

So Cedric’s attempts to explain the door intercom turn into a form of comic opera, where he explains, I don’t really listen and just keep on doing what is clearly not working. His response to my lack of comprehension is to speak louder (standard formula – if the person you are speaking too in a foreign language does not understand make sure to shout the same words – this will make all the difference). Meanwhile I continue adhering to the Idiots Formula: that being that the definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome. Finally at just the moment I am at risk of drowning in the sweat pouring off me, I decide to let my female chromosomes have a look in and I actually listen to what Cedric is saying. Five seconds later I am in through the door.

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The colours of Annecy

Annecy is one of those perfect destinations and places to live. An old city mellowing in its perfect colours, sitting on a perfect blue lake which is the cleanest large lake in France, surrounded by a vista of stunning mountains, encapsulated by picture perfect sunrises and sunsets. All this just an hour from the ski resorts and with great cycling, para gliding and a host of water sports all thrown in.

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The chateau dominates the lake and town

The old city sits on a mini labyrinth of canals leading off from the lake and is dominated by the bulk of the old chateau. Wandering the narrow laneways one feels as if some artist, for a tad of recreation, decided to try and create a perfect tableau of water, natural colours and painted buildings. Then they sprinkled the town with a plethora of markets, traditional shops, cafés and a smidgeon of antiquity. With all that you have the essence of France encapsulated in an area about three quarters of a kilometre square.

Sylvie at work
Sylvie Rossignol at work

As is common when travelling alone, I have fallen into the metaphorical embrace of the citizens of Annecy, mainly Sylvie Rossignol, a local artist whom I met in Sablet during the gathering for the opening of Anne Froger’s workshop. I am given a guided tour of Annecy, loaned a bike, introduced to family and friends, taken to the mountains and pushed off a cliff to go paragliding. In between I am offered picnics and group swims in the lake and generally made to feel welcome.

The fortuitous nature of these events is entirely to do with my having little guilt or shame – thus allowing me to ask for help and assistance where others might hesitate to be so forward, and, generally, an undeservedly large helping of good fortune.

This lack of shame and good fortune allows me to (a) assume that death will not come as a result of following strangers down back streets in bad parts of remote cities in the third world and as a result enjoying the experiences that come with such risks and (b) always assume that people will simply say “no” if they don’t want to help; if you assume this then you never feel guilty asking. As for the good luck I remember my good friend Bob Burton saying after some stroke of outrageous fortune that if the end of the world happened only the cockroaches and I would survive. I felt this was somewhat a backhanded compliment and that being stranded alone with several billion cockroaches was not something to be entirely desired.

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On yer (Dutch) bike

I mount my loaned Dutch style bike and take myself off to explore Annecy. It’s worth noting, at this point, that the people who say “Oh but I love my Dutch bike” are much like people who say “Oh give me a good whipping, nothing better”. They may claim to enjoy old Dutch bikes but to most everyone the bikes are a form of purgatory.

Generally they are old, have brakes and gears (if they have any) that don’t work properly. They are heavy, everything squeaks, the basket falls off at the critical moment tipping your camera, phone, passports and everything else of value in front of an oncoming 30 tonne truck and they steer like the proverbial drunken Irishman – noting that this is not a racist comment but simply a statement of fact. If you are Irish, and offended, you may substitute, Pole, Australian, Briton, Russian etc. for Irishman.

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Enjoying French police humour

Despite the obstacles posed by my bike, I nevertheless succeed in circumnavigating half the lake even when restricted by top speed of 15 kms an hour. Most of the lake is surrounded by bike path. In Australia, to find an entire lake surrounded by bike path would be the equivalent of returning from Europe after 3 months and finding that someone had finished the high speed rail from Melbourne to Sydney. A pure miracle. The exception, in Australia, is Canberra, of course, since it consumes half of Australia’s entire road funding simply to ensure that the denizens of parliament house enjoy a smooth trip wherever they go in the city.

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One kilometre from Annecy, a million miles from the crowds

There is one way in which Annecy does not differ from anywhere else in the world. I call this phenomenon the “traveller’s blessing”. The “travellers blessing” is the reality that 99% of the world’s population are too lazy to walk or cycle more than about 500 metres. Hence, apparently, all 100,000 visitors to Annecy are crowded on a single beach just outside the town.

Here, at the main beach, you can share the beauty of Lake Annecy with a veritable plague of sweating, farting, noisy, and indubitably annoying people. Or you can go expend a small modicum of the excess calories you consumed with your extra-large holiday breakfast and no more than 500 metres down the road share a beautiful spot with two ducks, a swan and about four other people in perfect peace and quiet.

The biggest drawback of Lake Annecy is, allegedly, the Lake Annecy flea which, if one has sensitive skin gives one an annoying and itchy allergy.

The following day, Sylvie, takes me up to the mountains. This is one of the world’s top paragliding spots. Kaylee Mackenzie has persuaded me that I should take a tandem flight, in Annecy, and eventually at Sylvie’s urging I overcome the inertia which is caused by the overcast weather and the fact I didn’t bring any money with me.

I launch into the stratosphere over Lake Annecy. My pilot is Vincent Genest from Airmax Parapente who, apart from being a tad crazy, appears to be a really good pilot and gives me an exhilarating and enjoyable 45 minute flight over the lake. This is true despite the appearance given by almost all the pictures he takes, in which I appear to be in fear of my life. A highly recommended experience.

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Views over Lake Annecy from the paraglider

On my final two nights I have to move accommodation having been unable to find someone for the entire period of my stay. In my new abode I am entertained by Dominique, who in common with many of my AirBnB hosts is great company. Apart from being on crutches, the result of some bizarre accident, she is also a prime mover behind La Ripaille à Sons, a great local group of performers based around brass instruments. So once again, as I have been many times, I am entertained by guitar, brass and song while relaxing in my abode.

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The lunchtime view

My final day before I head back to Paris and on to Amsterdam, is spent exploring the byways of Annecy town before Sylvie takes me to lunch with friends up in the hills behind Annecy. From here one can enjoy million dollar views while firmly embracing the good wine, cheese and company. A perfect ending to four days in the mountains.

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Lunch with friends in the hills behind Annecy

 

 

 

 

 

This is Part 9 of the blog series “97 Days Adrift in Europe”. Links to other episodes and related content can be found below:

  1. Part 6 – Travelling South

The full archive of images from this post can be found on Flickr here:

Annecy General; Annecy Paragliding

 

97 Days Adrift in Europe (part 8 – France, Provence)

Aix and Nimes, like Orange, Sablet and Avignon are all in Provence. I love this part of France. It feels very French, steeped in history, bathed in the soft hazy sun of the south, spotted with with hilltop villages as if some crazy God just dropped them randomly around the countryside.

Mont Sainte-Victoire
Mont Sainte-Victoire

It’s the France of Cezanne, of the Dutch-Frenchman, Van Gogh, it’s the France of Spain, with bullfighting rings and bullfighting still scattered around, with Paella served in the markets, and of the Rhône lazily, slowly and corpulently winding its way to Mediterranean, fattened with the rains of recent floods. Arles, the home of Van Gogh for the last years of his life, is just 30 minutes away perched lazily on the Rhône banks.

Aix, colours – one of many galleries

Most times I come to France, I come to Aix-en-Provence. For all that it is over-run with tourists it still has a certain southern slowness about it. It never makes me feel like hurrying. The roads are lined with honeycomb coloured buildings, matching the colour of Mont Sainte-Victoire. At every turn there are pastry and ice-cream shops and two great bookshops with cafes.

Aix is home to Bernard and Nadine, my two oldest friends in France. I met them in 1998 on Gili Air, Lombok. I had been at a yoga retreat in Ubud and the yoga crew inundated the Safari Cottages where the two of them were staying. In those days Gili Air was a rustic, under-visited getaway for hippies and those escaping the night life and cultural destruction of Bali.

Bernard, Dave, Self Safari cottages

We spent a week there doing the hour circuit of the island, eating pineapples on the beach, sampling every cafe on the island and spending our evenings doing never ending renditions of Beatles, Cohen and other popular songs which were within even my highly restricted repertoire – my singing is sounds much like that of an overenthusiastic hyena; occasionally you get a note that sounds musical but mostly it is the singing equivalent of giving an untrained five year old a violin and saying “make noise.

But my friends are tolerant and at a dollar for each off-key note I only have to buy all them dinner about 1000 times.

In Arles, with Bernard
In Arles, with Bernard

Today Gili is an overdeveloped, overwhelmed, over-loved tourist destination full of a five thousand 20-somethings all eagerly getting drunk, stoned and infected with STIs. When you are not tripping over the drunks, you are stepping on the discarded condoms from the party-goers that actually remained sober. The Bali armageddon has long overwhelmed the Gilis.

I’ve spent the subsequent 30 years bumping into Bernard and Nadine in various parts of the world, most notably Paris and Bangkok. Bernard is what is know as a Pied Noir, having been a child of parents who lived and worked in Algeria. Being a Pied Noir is both a good and bad thing. Good in that any bad behaviour can be explained away by a poor (as in lack of style and class) upbringing, and bad because anything that goes wrong for the partner of a Pied Noir is, inevitably, a result of living or knowing a Pied Noir.

Lunch in Aix en Provence
Lunch in Aix en Provence

Generally the Pied Noirs were conservative. The left disliked them for their support of French colonialism, their exploitation of Algerians and the role of the Algerian wars in the collapse of the Fourth Republic. Bernard suffers the double burden of being a Pied Noir and thus generally viewed as suspect by the left but actually being on the left and this also despised by the right. He is a prophet without honour in his own land.

On the Rhône with Bernard
On the Rhône with Bernard

This, the recent history of the Pieds-Noirs, has been imprinted with a theme of double alienation from both their native homeland and their adopted land.

The relationship of Nadine and Bernard was what might be termed argumentative; no hint of reason shall ever come between the two of them and a good rambunctious argument, as described in my original description of visiting them in Aix “Lunch in Aix-en-Provence

Bernard and Nadine have long separated. With true panache and timing their separation came just months after they had jointly adopted a young Haitian boy, Nel. Bernard now lives with new partner, Celine and their son,  a couple of hundred metres from Nadine where I am ensconced in my normal abode in the downstairs apartment. My time in Aix is apportioned between Nadine and Bernard; I feel a bit like they have been awarded shared custody of me and it is important to ensure each get equal time.

Dinner at Jean Jaques
Dinner with Jean Jaques, in 2011

My first night in Aix takes me to the home of Jean-Jaques who I last saw about ten years ago. He is a cross between an archetypal rural Frenchman, who one might expect to arrive at any moment with baguettes and onions, a traditional French agrarian socialist and a West Virginian hillbilly.

He wants me to on his local radio program and talk about Australian politics, ideally anything that is likely to get me arrested on re-entry to Australia. Like how the immigration concentration camps are a genocidal horror sufficient to  justify the assassination of any politicians advocating or supporting them. Fortunately I am leaving the evening before.

Nimes: One of the most perfectly preserved Roman Temples
Nimes: One of the most perfectly preserved Roman Temples

He has a new wife, an English woman, Louise Vines. Last time I visited he had a New Zealand wife who left shortly after I visited. I’m assured there is no connection between the two happenings, even though half the women with whom I have had relationships have decided immediately thereafter to become lesbians.

Jean Jaques lives just out of Aix on what might loosely be termed a small holding, populated by a menagerie of cats, ducks, geese, hens and various breeds of cars. The cars have bred faster than anything else. Last time I was invited for dinner there were three rusty French cars now there are about eight. He has another “new” car, which is actually a rather nice Alfa but managed to rip a scar down one side only about a week after getting it.

Nadine is off to Marseilles for just over two days to one of the never ending round of summer festivals that exist in the region. but I want to go and visit my ex-colleague, Gregoire, who lives in Nîmes, about an hour away.

I have borrowed Nadine’s brand new car for the purpose and I drive off with her admonishments not to damage her new Fiat ringing in my ears. This is like calling down fate on my head, or putting pins in one of the voodoo dolls which she brought back from Haiti. I have already bulk ordered 40 odd voodoo dolls when she next goes to Haiti, one for each member of the Coalition cabinet and 15 for the England rugby union team.

Inside the Nîmes arena
Inside the Nîmes arena
Jardins de les Fontaines, Nîmes
Jardins de les Fontaines, Nîmes

I arrive in Nîmes just before I am due to meet Gregoire and miraculously find a vacant parking spot right near the station.

I think that I have struck lucky but realise that I am simply the beneficiary of southern mediterranean culture. There is no one parked there because it is lunch-two-hour and everyone has gone off home for the lunch and siesta. Hence not only are the spaces empty but between 12 and 2 pm there are no parking charges; it is the only city I have visited where not only does everyone stop work for two hours but this also applies to the parking charges and the parking attendants.

Nîmes is a city of about 150,000 which, in common with a significant number of European cities, has done what Australian cities should be doing, and has pedestrianised large swathes of the city centre without any apparent impact on retail trade. It is an ancient Roman city and, among other things, contains one of the most perfectly preserved Roman Arenas. Gregoire shouts me

Gregoire (l), Antoine and Michelle (r)
Gregoire (l), Antoine and Michelle (r) in former times

lunch, which, apart from dead duck, mainly consists of the usual uplifting discussions about French and Australian politics, Brexit, the current lives of all the ex-Greenpeace staff with whom we worked and a long dissertation from Gregoire about how I could make my fortune, with my background, working for the UN or other international agencies.

The Arena, Nîmes
The Arena, Nîmes

Nîmes also possesses one of the finest Roman temples and the Garden of Fountains, an area of canals and fountains originally designed to support local industry. The highlight of the visit to Nîmes, however, is my attempt to destroy my friendship with Nadine, bankrupt myself and thus end my European holiday due to lack of funds.

This involves, doing $2000 worth of damage to Nadine’s car, even though short of standing on ones head and using binoculars the amount of damage was almost invisible. In reality, as in all situations of this type, it wasn’t my fault.

Or more probably, as a French friend explained to me once “in France it might be your fault but you are never to blame.” Thus I blame Nadine for lending me the car, Fiat for forcing me to refuel, and the petrol station for having an invisible underground bollard that leapt out and scratched the car deliberately.

These events and a range of other brilliantly conceived strategies designed to ensure that no conceivable travel crisis shall go undiscovered are described here in Part 3: “Travelling Idiot Style

This accident also contributes to further my reputation as a feckless traveller and borrower of cars – an observation which refers back to the two other friends’ cars that I have managed to destroy or damage over the years.

Once in New Zealand, 40 years ago, when, looking through a hedge green hedge, I failed to spot a hedge green car proceeding at high speed with the deliberate intention of destroying my friends Wolseley. Again not my fault. Had the hedge been blue, or the other car red nothing would have happened.

Arles, Arena, bullfight
Arles, Arena, bullfight

The second belong to Judy Mahon, in the aftermath of the Franklin campaign when, en route to Tullamarine Airport, another driver decided that turning right across oncoming traffic without looking was a good way to enliven the day.

Having borrowed Judy’s car I then showed the high level of personal responsibility for which I am renowned and abandoned the car into the care of Peter Collins (who was accompanying me so that he could drive the car back to Judy) because, had I not done so, I would have missed my flight thus costing me the massive amount of about $200.

Nîmes, main pedestrian street
Nîmes, main pedestrian street

 

Nadine despairs of reforming Bernard
Nadine despairs of reforming Bernard

On my final night, I head up the road for dinner with Bernard, Celine and their son, Eugene.

Bernard and Celine are teachers but both play in their band, Jim Younger’s Spirit; Jim Younger being a sort of American version of Ned Kelly and a member of the James-Younger Gang.  Bernard tells me he bumped into Peter Garrett in the post office in Aix, who he described as “lurching towards me with his huge height and blue eyes”

With Bernard, Nadine & Friends in Arles
With Bernard, Nadine & Friends in Arles

I ask him if he introduced himself as another rock and roll star, and tell him he could have gone up and said “Hey Peter Garrett, I’m a mate of Chris Harris….”.

I have no idea what Garrett might have replied but I seem to have convinced Bernard. I’m not convinced that I can believe Bernard about much, however, since he also tells me that I have a little malicious smile….which is clearly not true, since I have an open friendly smile with any hint of malicious thoughts or intent.

Casting aside Bernard’s backhanded compliment the evening proceeds as most of our evenings proceed. Large quantities of second rate French wine, endless amounts of food, an examination of the entrails of French, British and Australian cultures, lots of music, many very bad jokes, in an unintelligible mixture of French and English, a ragout of reminiscences largely populated by a surfeit of very large lies.

I have a new victim for some Australian mythologies, Eugene, who is now four. I tell him about Drop Bears, Hoop Snakes, Bunyips and the recently discovered Sand Sharks, that emerge soundlessly from under Australia’s deserts to devour passing tourists. But he is most excited at the discovery that if you eat Kangaroo it will make you hop endlessly for at least six hours after consumption. For the next two hours Bernard and Celine are pestered to buy Kangaroo, so that Eugene can experience this amazing phenomenon.

Dinner in Arles
Dinner in Arles

With Dave and Bernard on Gili AirToo many lies are barely enough….

 

 

 

 

 

This is Part 8 of the blog series “97 Days Adrift in Europe”. Links to other episodes and related content can be found below:

  1. Part 6 – Travelling South

The full archive of images of Nîmes used in this post can be found on Flickr here

97 Days Adrift in Europe (Part 6 – France, Côte du Rhône – Sablet)

Travelling South

I leave Gare du Lyon for Orange, in the south of France, on a beautiful summer’s morning. There is something cocoon like about travelling on planes and trains. It’s almost as if the closer we are forced into proximity with strangers, the more we feel the need to surround ourselves with a type
of invisible carapace into which the adjacent passengers shall not be allowed to intrude. It’s a function of not wanting to create a situation where we are interact with people whom we subsequently discover we have little in common but, having once broken the barriers, feel that we have to continue to interact.

TGV
On the TGV – like a cocoon

So, I fly south, at nearly 300 kilometres an hour, superficially insulated from the surrounding world. The countryside flies by silently. Inside there is little noise and few announcement. No airline hostess comes around to serve dinner or wake me up. There are few annoying announcements. The weather is a thing to be looked at rather than experienced. There is no wifi. Both motion and sound are soporific stretching out along the long hours.

My closest neighbours are a family of five Parisians, parents and three children. They pass the journey in a mixture of sleep, games, and desultory conversation. The state of the economy and of France, generally, what they will do on holiday, the American elections, school, security, immigration, Le Pen. He in IT, she a teacher. And three perfect, well behaved children, a boy of about six and two twin girls around 4.

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Provence the beautiful

I find France a bit like a time capsule. I have heard these same conversations, for twenty years, about how France is an economic basket-case, about all the social issues now overlaid with issues around security and terrorism. But around and beneath all this, the cultural heart beats on with, apparently, little change. The trains still run, mainly on time except during strikes. Most services seem better than in Australia, including public transport, the internet, health services, schools. Contrary to the mythology people are friendly and helpful. The countryside has a peculiar ambiance which I love, the little villages appearing immutable and unchanging bound in a tradition that goes on and on.

Lincoln's Place - Sablet
Lincoln and Anne’s house in Sablet, with Lynette Harris

I am disgorged on the platform at Orange. Someone has been organised to pick me up but I don’t know who. I cross under the platform and up the steps. A voice. English with a strong French accent. “Excuse me are you Chris?”. A tall, lean Frenchman of about 20. Mathé is my designated chaperone. I’m led to the car where Mathé‘s father, Fred, is waiting to drive me to Sablet, where Anne Froger lives in the house she shared with Lincoln Siliakus, before his death, 12 months ago. Fred is an older, smaller version of Mathé but both are archetypes of the southern French male, at least to my eyes, slim, dark, gallic. And the antithesis of the traditional fashionable Parisian.

We head first for a local market before we go to Sablet but, first, must divert to pick up a Oui Car for Mathé. It’s one of the French car share systems where people hire out their car to others. It takes us 45 minutes so, by the time we arrive in the others are ready to leave. First, though, are introductions and reunions. There are Serge and Francoise, Anne’s parents who I haven’t seen since I visited them at Blois, where they live about an hour from Paris, 30 years ago. Mimose Riviere and old friend from Paris days is there along with her brother, Leon, They are both from Reunion, a French Territory, in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Mimose has found herself a lover and moved to Germany and Leon is on a world tour of sorts, mostly on a mountain bike.

We arrive in Sablet. This is a gathering of mutual friends of Lincoln and Anne, each a little bit of the jigsaw of Lincoln’s life. Meeting the friends of Lincoln and Anne’s that I have not previously met is like piecing together a jigsaw of a beautiful life painted in people and places, each person, each place, each story and picture is like one extra brushstroke on a water colour of a life.

There are 50 people who make up part of the kaleidoscope of his life over the last 34 years, since I first met him in 1982.

For most of human history, the life of each individual was, for their family and friends, a canvas of which they knew each little piece, during times when most were born, lived and died in the same town, village or community.

With globalisation and with the increasingly itinerant lives of many people, many of us cross the lives of those we know for a few fleeting years, sharing houses, work and loves. Then the tide of life bears us apart, to new lives and new friends, often on opposite sides of the world.

For me Lincoln was one such person. I knew Lincoln, briefly, for a few years between 1982 and 1987 when we worked together on the Franklin campaign, in Tasmania, and then fleetingly, in Paris, when we lobbied Gough Whitlam and the Australian delegation, about the Daintree, at the World Heritage Committee meeting, in Paris.

Then for 20 years our lives drifted progressively apart as he moved with his partner, Anne, to Hong Kong and then to Paris and finally to Sablet.

In 2007, Lincoln, Anne and I reconnected when I moved to Paris to work for Greenpeace. I shared their flat for a couple of

At the Paris house, Rue Des Rennes with Linc and Anne

months in the Rue de Rennes. After that we saw each other regularly, if infrequently, over dinners, trips to the country and a walking trip around the wineries in the Rhone Valley. Even so, there remained 20 years where I knew little or nothing of his life.

Then this weekend, Anne invited a paraphernalia of their friends from many of those different parts of their lives of the last 30 plus years, to Sablet, almost 12 months after Lincoln died, for the opening of her new workshop focusing on the use of natural plant dyes.

Over 48 hours of conversation, anecdotes, food and wine, the watercolour of Lincoln’s life became a little more complete, each person adding a brushstroke to the canvas of his life as activist, lawyer, friend, husband, writer, teacher, wine enthusiast and much more.

The crowd applauds
Workshop opening and the crowd applauds
Workshop
The workshop and works
Opening of Anne's workshop
Cutting the ribbon
On the way back
One the way back down the hill from Linc’s scattering place
Mimose and Sylvie painting at the scattering place

I didn’t have the opportunity to go to Lincoln’s funeral but I feel fortunate, a year later, to have spent an hour at the peaceful spot, among vines and glorious views of the small part of Provence he called home for the last ten years of his life, and where his ashes floated off in the Provençal breezes to some winery in the sky.

While, in some senses, very obvious, the weekend made me realise how little we often know of even those we call our friends, lovers, acquaintances and colleagues and how important ceremonies and gatherings of this type are for seeing more of the rich colours of lives of which we only know a small part.

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Les Dentalles – behing Sablet

The weekend consists, apart from the opening of Anne’s new workshop of a feast of reclining in the Provençal sun, eating good French food and drinking good wine. We are in the heart of the Rhône valley a spectacular area of jagged peaks, medieval hilltop villages and, of course, some of the world’s best wineries.

Breakfast at Sablet – always and event on a sunny day. Linc and Lynette Harris

It is here that Lincoln turned himself into a something of a local icon, a well loved figure, writer of wine blogs among other things, including the famous Vino Solex. Linc. and I passed many happy hours, while Anne was slaving away in Paris sampling the wines of the region and telling each other stories that became increasingly full of bullshit with each passing glass of wine and reminiscing about how the two of us each saved half of Australia’s natural environment single handed.

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Lunch with Linc.
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In the garden at Sablet with Linc and Anne

The last time I saw Linc. was in 2012 when I took my Mum, Lynette, to the south of France, her very last trip before she decided she couldn’t manage overseas travel any more. She described her visit to Sablet, Orange, Vaison, and Avignon as one of the highlights of her travelling life and, if you visit that part of France, you will understand why.

The previous time was 2011 when we did a circumnavigation of every winery Linc knew in the area finally ending up at a degustation where the local vignerons taste each others wine, and rate each bottle to ensure that the standard of local wines is being maintained.

Chris at wine tasting Gigondas

I was asked to join which given my voluminous knowledge of wines was about as much use as asking me to fly the space shuttle. After 30 bottles, I was forced to retire hurt (there were 60 bottles in all to taste), since I had imbibed so much wine via both the fumes and the little that you swallow, even when spitting out, that I was managing to speak a mixture of French, English and Spanish each time I opened my mouth…

Thanks for the memories and hasta la vista, Lincoln.

This is Part 6 of the blog series “97 Days Adrift in Europe”. Links to other episodes and related content can be found below:

The full archive of images used in this post can be found on Flickr here

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