Europe 2017 (Episode 5): The Black Sea, the Beach and the Bosphorus

As an Australian there are few more bizarre experiences than visiting a popular European beach. Yes, there are remote(ish) beaches in Europe and beaches with surf. Some of the Atlantic beaches of France meet these criteria. But if you want a cultural experience utterly foreign to the average Australian then accept an invitation to a popular city beach or swimming spot near a major population.

This is, to the average Australian beachgoer, as instant coffee is to the Australian coffee snob or as a British national park is to an Australian wilderness area.

The key to the experience is to take every single thing one might expect from Australian beaches and invert it. Space, solitude, waves, free access, freedom, quiet, nature, walking, wind. None of these are on offer. In essence the aim is to take the urban experience and transfer it to the coast adding just one thing, saltwater.

European Beaches: no solitude, no waves, no space, no nature

We leave Istanbul at 10 am. This is the first difference. Almost nothing starts early on a weekend in Europe, whereas for me the one of the joys of the beach is the early morning light and solitude. It’s forty minutes to the Black Sea, if one is lucky. If the traffic is bad it can take 90 minutes but no one who lives in Istanbul would really care since it can take two hours to travel 5 kilometres, along the Bosphorus, on a bad day.

The aim of the urban European beach experience, it seems, is to remove almost any element of the natural. If you can concrete it, do so. An urban shopping experience, at the beach is an aim through the creation of a food court on the beach, among other things. Removal of any risk is essential. Avoidance of quiet is a critical element.

The louder, the more populated, the less natural and the more urban the better. Even better have motorised hang gliders pass over every ten minutes and, if humanly possible, offset the unpleasant natural hum of the ocean with regular passing jet skis. If they happen to mow down the occasional swimmer to provide some light entertainment so much the better. One less person with whom to fight over the beach lounges.

Is any beach complete without Pringles and the Pringle Girl?

As you approach the beach you can hear the bass from about a kilometre away. It sounds more like the average Byron Bay doof than a beach. We park and follow a stream of beachgoers, longer than the average airport security queue, down to the beach entrance. 

The first impression does not lie because, while the beach is technically public, somehow private companies are allowed to control most of the beach and charge for entry. To ensure this, fences and security guards are employed. But they are not employed to keep you and I safe from imminent terrorist threat, but to keep the food and drink franchisees safe from economic terrorists who might undermine their economic security by bringing bottled water or food onto the beach.

 

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And every beach shall have multiple cafes, bars, boom boxes and dance floors cos that’s what beaches are for

Once our contraband (water) has been confiscated we are allowed onto the sacred shore. Here, for our $10 entry fee we can fight with the hoi polloi for our share of the beach furniture. With the advent of climate change it’s about 45ºc in the shade, so an umbrella is essential.

We haven’t arrived early but, fortunately, manage to find four of the five remaining beach chairs – these are vacant because because they are immediately adjacent to the largest of the beach speakers ensuring that not only can we not hear the ocean but we can’t hear each other either. This leaves the sole remaining, non-swimming, forms of entertainment as reading and trying to re-position one’s beach umbrella to keep in the shade as the planet revolves.

Access to the beach, which remains forty metres away, is complex since it involves passing through a teeming maze of people and beach furniture (assuming furniture can teem) set up to prevent any direct route to the water. If you weren’t hot before you left your seat you are by the time you reach the water.

This is partly because you have fried your feet on the white hot sand, having failed to bring any water tolerant footwear, and partly because fighting through the crowd to actually get at the water is more difficult and sweat inducing than being first at a bargain bin at a Boxing Day sale. 

 

 

You may swim if you can fight your way to the water

Once at the water, the nanny-state regulations Australia look like a paradise of risk taking. Technically you are not supposed to go outside the restricted (buoyed) area in case you (a) drown or (b) get your head taken off by passing high speed boats/jet skis or (c) get run down by a supertanker heading for the Bosphorus. As a result you can’t actually get more than waist deep because the water depth on the Black Sea increases by out 1 centimetre for each 20 metres that you head out to sea. So you are halfway to the Ukraine before you are neck deep.

Nevertheless I take my life in my hands and, abandoning all hope of rescue should I start drowning, I head out into the 15 centimetre surf. Once I am chest deep, and thus outside the marked area, I am subjected to numerous and repeated urgings from both the onshore lifeguards, in their tower, and the surf patrol on their board to save myself from imminent death by returning to the safety of the buoyed area.

However being blond/grey haired and light eyed I am able to ignore their urgings by posing as an idiot tourist, shrugging and waving my hands about. Hopefully they think I am a north-Italian since we wouldn’t want the Turks to think badly of Australians.

Beware of rips and do not swim outside the rubber duckies, due to dangerous, large, surf

Despite both the costs and risks of visiting the Black Sea, we nevertheless pass a pleasantly indolent day doing nothing and I finish several chapters of my book Birds without Wings an epic of Turkey’s years between the 1880s and 1930s where, judging by the number of slaughters of Greeks, Turks, Armenians, Kurds etc etc, it is a wonder than anyone at all survives in Anatolia and its surrounds.

Our day at the Black Sea follows on from our sailing trip with a local group from InterNations. Had this been a commercial trip it would arguably have fallen foul of the Trade Practices Act since the promotional email advertises it as sailing around the Prince’s Islands in the Sea of Marmara, just south of the Bosphorus whereas in reality the sailing boat does not sail and we don’t go anywhere anyway but anchor firmly for the entire day off Heylbeli Island.

Sailing, Turkish style. Put down the anchor and do nothing

Nevertheless this form of stationary sailing trip has the great advantage that (a) no one gets seasick (well one person only) and (b) we don’t have to put up with a diesel motor all day. Like the trip to the Black Sea, the sailing trip allows our group to indulge the Turkish passion for socialising, lying in the sun getting skin cancer, eating, music, dancing and swimming.

Despite the unforeseen passing of a sedentary day on the ocean waves, a pleasant, albeit overlong, day of doing nothing is enjoyed by everyone. It allows everyone to drink too much, eat well, keep cool with repeated swims and for the men to regress to being ten year olds. They do this by repeatedly jumping off the highest part of the boat much to the apparent pleasure of the women watching them from the water, who encourage the regression to adolescence.

As the day wears on the music becomes progressively louder and eventually the crew manages to persuade the increasing inebriated passengers to commence dancing, an invitation to make fools of ourselves. This invitation is stubbornly resisted by Kaylee, her nephew, Jesse, and I who all require substantially more alcohol before we can be persuaded to overcome our inherent northern caucasian inhibitions. After all one wouldn’t want to enjoy oneself too much.

 

 

Let there be dancing – except for Australians who must not enjoy themselves

As evening falls we fire up the diesel for our return to Istanbul a trip which is leavened by the entertainment of a typical day in Istanbul traffic but transferred to the water – where our skipper decides that he has been offended by another boat which has failed to give way, as required.

This allows us all the hilarity of witnessing a Mexican standoff where both boats come to a standstill mid-ocean while the two boat captains harangue each other for five minutes from a distance of 20 metres. Fortunately, not being the US, neither are armed so we all survive.

This post is the fifth and last in the series Europe 2017 – From Corsica to Bosnia – links to previous posts in the series are below:

  1. Corsica
  2. Florence
  3. The Balkans
  4. Mljet

For the Flickr archive that contains all all the images from which the photos in this post were selected click on the links below:

Black Sea

Bosphorus/Sea of Marmara

 

 

Europe 2017 (Episode 4): A Holiday Oxymoron – Visiting Mljet – another “undiscovered Mediterranean Island”

Like military intelligence, the living dead, found missing and Microsoft Works, the concept of an undiscovered Mediterranean Island is about as near to reality as Australia being the Clever Country. So it is with Mljet – our island getaway, just over an hour from Dubrovnik. To be fair, however, the claim was “European Islands without a lot of Tourists”. Mljet could fit that definition depending on your definition of ‘a lot’.

Regardless, if you are not seeking a wilderness experience, it is a little gem, with crystal clear water, picture perfect clifftop and coastal villages, great walking and riding and spectacular scenery.

Odysseus Cave, Mljet; deep blue clear, cool water

The ferry ride from Dubrovnik takes about an hour from the modern port by the local fast cat. Coming from the north you can also, get there via the catamaran service that comes from Split.

This is the only part of the five week trip that is largely unplanned, so we arrive at Sobra, on Mljet, with no idea how we will get to Saplunara, on the southern, and quietest, end of the island.

This sort of unplanned arrival is, theoretically, the best type of holiday, where one just travels and arrives on a whim and makes the best of the opportunities that present themselves.

Saplunara; the peaceful southern end of Mljet

In this case it is just an Idiot Traveller oversight of the sort that is eminently avoidable if only I had actually given some thought to our next stop. Had we arrived on a weekend it is likely no cars would have been available so we would have been largely marooned on one end of Mljet which would have been very useful as most of what we want to do is on the other end. As it is we are able to hire a car just at the port.

This is where my instinctive reversion to adolescent tendencies cuts in and I can’t resist hiring a convertible VW Golf. Most of the cars available are, in fact, convertibles but even so my latent male bogan tendencies allow me revert to my memories of screaming around the European roads in my old convertible Triumph Vitesse. Usually I was over both the speed limit and the safe alcohol limit – albeit this was before the days when there was breath testing and before anyone, apparently believed drink driving was a problem.

Triumph Vitesse

Look just like my old Triumph – you can take away the car but you can’t take away the latent hoon

It takes about an hour to drive from one end of Mljet to the other along winding roads, and we enjoy views which, if you bought properties that had similar views, would cost $10 million if they were anywhere near the coast in Australia.

We quickly discover that the VW has no synchro, limited braking ability and a hole in the exhaust. This gives everyone within five kilometres the impression that an entire fleet of Triumph motorcycles is passing in convoy. For us, in the car, the exhaust problem threatens not only deafness but early brain damage via carbon monoxide fumes. And this is leaving aside the damage to Kaylee’s perm, and to her complexion, caused by too much wind and sun.

Our AirBnB at Saplunara sits on a quiet dirt road about 30 seconds walk from a spot where you can plunge off the rocks or, in the opposite direction a two minute walk from a quiet, partially shaded beach. It’s not really my type of beach but Kaylee is like the proverbial pig in shit with the tranquility, the sunshine and the water. Plenty of time to relax and read. On top of all those good things, the local village about five minutes drive away has a restaurant with a great location and good food and wine like a scene out of the Lotus Eaters¹.

In the morning we roar off, literally, to the other end of Mljet. The northern end is mainly national park but, if you want the party scene, also has the town of Pomena, just on the tip of the island.

The only real attraction of Pomena, for me, is that it has the only dive centre on the island, and so I get to go diving on our third day.

The owner of the dive centre, dive-master, boat captain and laconic Mjletian is, Ive Sosa, from the Aquatic Diver Centre, who quietly tolerates my apparent inability to organise or put on any of my equipment in any sort of manner that will ensure my survival for more than a few minutes underwater.

In our modern world, diving is a curious anomaly. It requires a massive infrastructure of boats, dive shops, ports, and equipment and the consumption of huge amounts of fuel to get to the dive spots but is one of the most tranquil, peaceful and meditative experiences available to humankind.

You slide beneath the waves and are left with just the sound of the escaping air. Your vision is narrowed to just what lies in front and you descend into this almost soundless nether world of rhythm, soft light, and sensuous movement. Everything, even the divers, try to move with a minimalist elegance of effort, conserving air and energy.

Meditation, yoga, the mountains, the wild lands – all places or states to which people go to find some form of tranquility, a type of transformation in a society where there remain few quiet places. The rhythm of swimming gives a form of meditative state to some but there are few greater states of grace than that experienced below the water’s surface.

We dive on an ancient 5th century wreck which is still surrounded by the pottery and old bricks that were destined for the, now ruined, palace at Polace, nearby. Visibility is about 50 metres. At about 12 metres I understand why Ive insisted I wear a hood on my wetsuit when we encounter a thermocline and suddenly the water temperature plunges from a pleasant 20°c down to about 12°c in the space of one metre. Thermoclines are most evident during the summer; the first at 3 – 5 metres, the next one at about 12 metres, and another at 18 metres.

Diving Mljet, crystal clear water, few currents and multiple great dive sites

To get to Pomena, our route takes us along the eastern side of the mountain ridge and past numerous jewel-like coastal towns, sitting hundreds of metres below our route along the main road. Each town has its own perfect bay filled with million dollar yachts, .

We visit four towns, on our way to Pomena and back, Korita, Okuklje, Kozarika and Blato. They are all perched around their bays with crystal clear water and old stone buildings, largely unspoilt by the waves of tourism that have overtaken much of Europe.

We venture down to each in turn, over the next two days, to see what they have to offer. Each is quite different with the sole shared quality being those crystal waters and a bunch of perfectly located AirBnBs and cafe-restaurants.

Korita, tranquil crystal clear water, million dollar yachts

En route to Pomena we also do a side trip down to Odysseus Cave. The descent is down several hundred steps which is a fortunate deterrent to many. We arrive at 9 am and have the rock platforms and caves entirely to ourself. Here you plunge off the rock platform into fifty metres of clear water and then, in calm weather, swim into the cave. Inside are the remnants of the old ramps on which fishermen used to store their boats and massive falls of rock which have carved off the cave roof.

Okuklje

Our first stop in the national park is Great Lake, at the centre of the park. The lake is encircled by a walking and cycling track and its history is dominated by the ancient 12th century Benedictine monastery on the Isle of Saint Mary. It remained a monastery until 1808 when Napoleon decided the monks had better things to do with their lives and then subsequently became a hotel. It has only recent started being repaired after the Croatian Government returned it to the church. The lake and its surrounds provide a relaxing days cycling, kayaking, swimming and checking out the local history.

Great Lake and the Island of St Mary

Our return trip takes us to Blato. Unlike the coastal towns that have benefited from tourism, Blato, once a thriving town of 250 is now a largely empty and much abandoned old town of just 40 people. It was the third settlement on the island and is the location of one the islands perched lakes as well as being one of the main agricultural areas on the island.

Blato provides the Idiot Traveller with a standard travellers’ intelligence test. This requires us to work out how to put on the roof in order to prevent further carnage being visited on us by the intense afternoon sun.

Travelling in a convertible one quickly realises why they never became the dominant transport mode since there are only about two countries on earth where the climate is sufficiently benign to prevent you either getting fried by the sun or frozen in driving wind or rain.

Blato, once a thriving community of 250 now largely abandoned in the flight to the coast

From Mljet it is back to Dubrovnik. We drop the Suzuki off, which has replaced the VW Golf when we could no longer tolerate the sense of imminent death that the brakes of the Golf engendered. The return trip is on the catamaran from Split, which was probably built in Tasmania (the catamaran not Split), a trip we do in company of several dozen teenagers. They spend the trip taking selfies and the males spend the trip preening in front of the girls each like latter day versions of Warren Beatty, about who the song “You’re so Vain” was allegedly written (at least in part).


¹ In Greek mythology the lotus-eaters (Greek: λωτοφάγοι, lōtophagoi), also referred to as the lotophagi or lotophaguses (singular lotophagus /ləˈtɒfəɡəs/) or lotophages (singular lotophage /ˈltəf/), were a race of people living on an island dominated by lotusplants. The lotus fruits and flowers were the primary food of the island and were a narcotic, causing the inhabitants to sleep in peaceful apathy.

This post is the fourth in the series Europe 2017 – From Corsica to Bosnia – links to previous posts in the series are below:

  1. Corsica
  2. Florence
  3. The Balkans

For the Flickr archive that contains all all the images from which the photos in this post were selected click on this link

Europe 2017 (Episode 3): The Balkans: Beauty and the Beast – from Dubrovnik to Sarajevo

The trip through the mainland Balkans starts in Dubrovnik. But to get to Dubrovnik we must first leave Bari, in Italy, by ferry. We arrive at the port to find that the ferry is delayed by several hours, apparently. No one is quite sure how long and, like the quintessential Disappearing Man of Isaac Asimov novels, any staff member of Jadrolinija Ferries who could supply useful information is as disappeared as they can be.

Hence we wait in the not very salubrious terminal served by one slightly seedy takeaway that, in common with most of Corsica, from which we have just travelled takes only cash. Light entertainment is served by watching the ferry to Albania which appears to have no timetable, having been loading for appears to be give hours and is still doing so and by also watching the other passengers for our ferry.

Dubrovnik

Periodically an additional Albanian will appear and leisurely make his/her way to the ship. There appears to be no rush. I assist one of them, a young woman with child, who is struggling with her luggage. Unsurprisingly since it turns out since her suitcase weighs more than the average fully loaded semi-trailer. She claims to be carrying clothes. In which case they must be gold lined bras and panties. No damage is done other than about five herniated discs in my back.

The ferry dock cannot be seen from where most people are sitting so we are able to observe metaphorical flocks of sheep in action. About every fifteen minutes  someone will pick up their luggage and head through the doors towards the hypothetical location of the ferry. At this point, and despite there being absolutely no new information or any rationale to their decision to move, at least half of the ferry passengers will pick up their bags and follow. This is the cult/crowd mentality at its best of the sort that leads to mob lynchings, gas chambers and queues for iPhones.

We, meanwhile, are not fooled, as we are with two Kiwis, Helen and Kemp, who of course understand sheep-like behaviour extremely well. They are going to Croatia for a wedding because it always makes sense if you are from NZ to hold your weddings in the farthest corner of Croatia.

On the other hand it gives them (and us) an excuse to drink champagne. Even better it is their champagne. Given that rugby season is coming it is unlikely Australians will be buying champagne any time soon. We also consume the bottle of Corsican mead that I brought on one of the walking trails. This is the best form of travel: random meetings, good conversation, champagne, mead. In this context delays are irrelevant.

For those that have not yet visited Dubrovnik which, judging by the crowds on the main street of the old city, can only be about half a dozen people, Dubrovnik is, daily, like a beautiful dessert placed before a crowd of gluttons. It will survive for seconds before being entirely ruined. It’s beauty is best appreciated in the two hours around dawn – that is before it is effectively destroyed by the descending hordes.

Dubrovnik

Like many other places where tourism has effectively, if not actually, destroyed the goose that laid the golden egg, it is hard to appreciate the real beauty of this ancient city when fighting ones way through the thousands of visitors, not least the hordes that descent ‘en masse’ from cruise ships like some sort of biblical plague.

In the last 20 years or so the population of the old city has plummeted from 5000 to 1000 as the locals are driven out by rising rents, lack of any shops other than cafes, bars, and shops selling un-needed gifts to unthinking travellers. And that’s leaving aside the conversion of almost every available bit of sleeping space to AirBnB.

Dubrovnik

We have two stops in Dubrovnik, one on arrival in Croatia and one on departure. For some reason known only to the Idiot Traveller I have managed, on both occasions, to book AirBnBs at the very highest point of the city just inside the city walls. Thus, several times a day we are required to stagger up about 200 + steps to the top of the city. Bad for both my knee and humour.

These ascents involve a sort of game of chicken with those descending where, at the hot times of day, everyone tries to stay in the sixty centimetres of shade next to the buildings. Fortunately it is only mid thirties while we are there as opposed to the 45ºc which Croatia endures the following week.

Like every couple, Kaylee and I have points of difference in our travelling routines. I like to avoid every market and shop as if they were sources of the Black Death whereas, for Kaylee, shopping and buying is one of the pleasures of travel. It seems that every second shop sells potential gifts for friends and relatives and our trip is punctuated by approximately 652 visits to inspect potential purchases.

This difference has been exacerbated, on this trip, by the “imminent” arrival of the first MacKenzie grandchild. As a result all of Europe has been scoured for baby clothes and gifts even though “imminent” in this case means at least six months away.

We also differ on beaches and driving speeds. Kaylee feels, for whatever bizarre reason, that, since I almost killed her by rolling her Subaru station wagon some years ago, I should restrain myself from acting like Ayrton Senna on Croatia’s windy roads. Perhaps justifiably, since Senna is dead.

Night time Dubrovnik

I also feel that any beach without waves or somewhere to kayak, dive etc is not a real beach, whereas she is quite happy to be on any beach with sun and water. She is also unsupportive of puns, word plays or interesting statistical analyses, all things which any reasonable partner should be prepared to endure until death do us part. I on the other hand, being inestimably tolerant, put up with the 652 gift shop visits with good humour and patience. Such is life.

Beyond these differences we travel reasonably amicably following the itinerary which I, as resident travel agent, have picked out. Croatia is the third country on our five country European tour and, like most places, if you can get away from peak periods and peak locations, it is beautiful and relatively deserted.

Dubrovnik in the morning and at night, after most people have either not yet got up or have already gone to bed, is a magical town of tiny streets, magnificent old buildings and breeze-kissed rock rock platforms perched above the Adriatic.

Dubrovnik

Travelling through the Balkans and Turkey is like a primer in life. Sometimes it seems a hard and brutal road if you look at the history, but, at the same time one is surrounded by ineffable beauty and acts of compassion. To know and understand the history of this region is to understand the total and utter failure of the concept leadership as defined by western democracy and, more generally, humans.

Greece, Turkey, Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, Turkey, Armenia, Kosovo, Montenegro. These are lands swept by repeated genocides. An eye for an eye makes us all blind. So far as I can tell only the Bosnian Muslims are largely innocent, in recent times. Even so there was at least one massacre of Serbians by Bosnian troops during the siege of Sarajevo.

The Greeks murdered the Turks, the Turks the Greeks, The Armenians murdered the Kurds and Turks and vice versa. The Croats murdered the Serbians and the Bosnians. The Serbians murdered the Croats and Bosnians. And on and on.

Unlike the Jewish holocaust, but like the Rwandan, Nigerian, Syrian and other genocides, these are repeated mass murders largely already forgotten. In Srebrenica alone the Serbians murdered 31000 people. Or at least there have been 8000 bodies recovered but another 23,000 Muslims remain unaccounted for 25 years after the war ended.

These were not casualties of war but victims of a brutal civilian ethnic cleansing where the Serbs executed almost every last able bodied Muslim male they could get hold off. Those that fled to the mountains were also hunted and murdered wherever possible. In total more than 100,000 people died in the war.

Our journey, in the Balkans starts in Dubrovnik, follows the bus route to Mostar in Herzegovina and wends its way onto Sarajevo in Bosnia also by bus. As I travel I read Rose of Sarajevo and Birds without Wings, both historical novels that document the sweep of history of 40 years of massacres during the death throes of the Ottoman Empire and through to the civil war in Bosnia. An un-ending tapestry of blood and brutality.

En route Mostar to Sarajevo

Each nation – one cannot say ethnic group because all these nations are composed largely of South Slavs – Yugoslavia means South Slavia – document carefully the atrocities committed by others against them but ignore totally the identical genocidal fury they unleashed at other times, in return.

Thus we find ourselves in the old fort above Dubrovnik where, in 1991-2, a handful of ill-equipped Croats held out against the entire remnants of the old Yugoslavian army, navy and airforce (the latter two of which the Croats had none). The Serbs, in defiance, of world opinion and seemingly out a spite that achieved almost nothing, proceeded to pummel world heritage listed Dubrovnik reducing large parts to rubble.

Here the Croats have created a museum commemorating that resistance and documenting the brutality of the Serb invaders. There is no mention, of course, of either the genocidal slaughter by the Nazi backed Ustashe Croat fascists during World War 2 nor of the revenge slaughter and expulsion of Serbs, in 1995, after the Croats had rebuilt their own army.

Mostar War Damage, the old town and old bridge

From Dubrovnik we head north and east to Mostar and Sarajevo in Bosnia Herzegovina (The name Herzegovina means “duke’s land”, referring to the medieval duchy of Stjepan Vukčić Kosača who took title “Herzeg of Saint Sava”. Herceg is derived from the German title Herzog).

We travel from Dubrovnik to Mostar by bus mainly because in the aftermath of the war many of the train routes connecting Bosnia to Croatia and Serbia no longer operate and we are deposited at a typically ugly bus station – nowhere in Eastern Europe is immune from the plague of soviet era architecture and the descendants of that architectural style.

From here we are fleeced double the normal charge for our taxi ride from our bus station to our AirBnB. The same taxi driver offers to take us on a tour of the local area at a price that we later find is as inflated as buying smashed avocado in eastern Sydney. This is the sort of price that the Idiot Traveler would pay without checking.

But as usual we are smart and fail to take up his offer out of sheer inertia. The route to the AirBnB takes us through Mostar’s civil war front line where the Croat leaders having betrayed the Bosnians, with whom they were formerly in alliance, sent their troops to try and create a greater Croatia from stolen Bosnian land.

Mostar

Mostar is an odd city. In many ways it is nothing special – much of the city is just a pretty ordinary modern urban centre. The old city, the part for which most people visit, is a tiny part of Mostar, just a street or three wide and a few hundred metres long. There are genuinely old parts that survived largely undamaged but significant parts were entirely reconstructed after the damage of the Balkans war and many buildings remain as ruins, or are full of bullet holes.

Those few streets are an archetypal tourist trap of market shops and restaurants perched above the river selling a mixture of everything from genuinely gorgeous art pieces through to junk. The famous old bridge itself is not, of course, old having been famously, and deliberately, destroyed by the Croatians during the war.

Mostar

But despite all that one cannot but be struck by the sublime juxtaposition of the old city and bridge perched above the deep green Neretva River. Mostar is named after the ‘mostari’ (the bridge keepers). We are fortunate to have one of the best AirBnBs in Mostar with a stunning view of the bridge, a breakfast costing $5 that would cost $20 in Australia and hosts who are friendly and who also double as our tour guides to the areas around Mostar.

There are five mosques and two churches visible from the balcony a reflection of the diversity that means Bosnia has one of the world’s most complicated political systems reflecting the disparate political ambitions of Serbs, Bosniaks and Croats – something that further exacerbates an economic situation that has led to 27% unemployment including youth unemployment of 66%.

From Mostar we move onto Sarajevo arriving after a circuitous bus trip through the spectacular mountain scenery and gorges surrounding the Neretva River.

We would have preferred to go by train as the train journey is reputed to be scenically one of the best in Europe but for reasons best know to Bosnian railways the line, which re-opened in July, only has two trains a day. The first of these requires you to get up at about 5 am, or some similar ungodly hour, and the second, and last, of which deposits you in Sarajevo in the middle of the night. No one, apparently, wants to travel at any civilised time of day.

We find our AirBnB is within spitting distance of old Sarajevo. In common with Mostar much of the old and a great part of modern Sarajevo had to be rebuilt having been shelled repeatedly by the Serbs, who controlled all the hills surrounding Sarajevo and mounted a siege of the town.

Reports indicated an average of approximately 329 shell impacts per day during the course of the siege, with a maximum of 3,777 on 22 July 1993.[6] This urbicide [6] Among buildings targeted and destroyed were hospitals and medical complexes, media and communication centres, industrial complexes, government buildings and military and UN facilities.

Sarajevo: Despite the bloody war & graves, still multicultural

The Siege of Sarajevo was the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare. After being initially besieged by the forces of the Yugoslav People’s Army, Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, was besieged by the Army of Republika Srpska from 5 April 1992 to 29 February 1996 (1,425 days) during the Bosnian War.

The siege lasted three times longer than the Battle of Stalingrad and more than a year longer than the Siege of Leningrad.[4].

More than 10,000 people died during that time and for much of the war the only access in and out of the city was via a 1.6 metre high tunnel dug by Sarajevans under the airport which was controlled by the UN. All Bosnian arms supplies came in and out of the city by this route. The siege was effectively ended by NATO intervention in 1994/5.

Sarajevo

Although Sarajevo was besieged by the Serbs and the city was divided into areas controlled by Serbs and others controlled by the Bosnian forces the population of Sarajevo under siege was a mixture and Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks and all fought together in the Bosnian armed forces.

Today Sarajevo remains a city which is proud of its continuing multicultural heritage and the city is dotted with signs proclaiming this, as well as with a multitude of cemeteries where the war dead were buried including the famous grave of the Bosnian ‘Romeo and Juliet’ Admira Ismić and Boško Brkić, a mixed Bosnian-Serbian couple who tried to cross the lines and were killed by sniper fire.

They became a symbol of the suffering in the city but it is unknown from which side the snipers opened fire . Even so, in addition to the thousands of refugees who left the city, many Sarajevo Serbs left for the Republika Srpska, which is a semi-autonomous part of Bosnia. As a result the percentage of Serbs in Sarajevo decreased from more than 30% in 1991 to slightly over 10% in 2002.

Sarajevo

The Research and Documentation Center in Sarajevo (RDC) found that the siege left a total of 13,952 people dead: 9,429 Bosniaks, 3,573 Serbs, 810 Croats and 140 others. Of these, 6,137 were ARBiH soldiers and 2,241 were soldiers fighting either for the JNA (former Yugoslav army) or the VRS (Serbian militia). Of the ARBiH soldiers killed, 235 were Serbs, 328 were Croats and the rest were Bosniaks.

Sixty percent of all people killed in Sarajevo during the siege were soldiers. In particular, 44 percent of all fatalities were ARBiH personnel. A total of 5,434 civilians were killed during the siege, including 3,855 Bosniaks, 1,097 Serbs and 482 Croats. More than 66 percent of those killed during the siege were Bosniaks, 25.6 percent were Serbs, 5.8 percent were Croats and 1 percent were others.

Of the estimated 65,000 to 80,000 children in the city, at least 40% had been directly shot at by snipers; 51% had seen someone killed; 39% had seen one or more family members killed; 19% had witnessed a massacre; 48% had their home occupied by someone else; 73% had their home attacked or shelled; and 89% had lived in underground shelters.

The tunnel that saved Sarajevo and winter Olympic ruins destroyed by the Serbs

Today the old city of Sarajevo has been largely restored and provides a traffic-free pedestrian enclave of shops, churches, mosques and museums which reflect the remaining diversity of the city.

The museums, displays and ‘siege tours’ provide a salutary exposition of the futility of religious and sectarian violence as well as the human potential for both brutality and for overcoming the hatred of war.

Sarajevo also provides a reminder of the most futile and bloody of human wars, World War 1 which started as a result of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria by a Serbian extremist and act that is marked by the plaque on the corner of Zelenih Berentki St.

This post is the third in the series Europe 2017 – From Corsica to Bosnia – links to previous posts in the series are below:

  1. Corsica
  2. Florence

For the Flickr archive that contains all all the images from which the photos in this post were selected click on the links below:

Dubrovnik

Mostar

Sarajevo

Europe 2017 (Episode 2): Florence – Avoiding Peak Tourist

A Flying Visit to Florence

Our visit to Florence is really just an interregnum on the way from Corsica to Dubrovnik via Bari. There is no rest in Florence from the madding crowds….except choosing the right time of day and a 20 minute walk away from the city centre. Rules for the Idiot Traveller: anytime before 8 am is a good time to visit tourist spots and any place more than a kilometre from the key tourist attractions is a million miles from the madding crowd.

The Uffizi Gallery – no visit to Florence is complete without it

The saving grace of Florence, of course, in common with many European cities is the relegation of the motor vehicle to its rightful place as a second class citizen. Here in Florence, as elsewhere around Europe, it is the obligation of the driver to avoid pedestrians and to drive at a minimal speed to avoid accidents. Here the pedestrian is not just King but King Kong.

Since most Idiot Travellers do not follow my Idiot Travelling rules (probably luckily since they wouldn’t then be Idiot Travellers and the rules would be useless) 97% of all visitors to Florence are confined by their limited use of common sense/brain space to about two streets. There are at any time, it appears about three million visitors to Florence.

Peak Tourist (left) and non-Peak Tourist (right) – follow the Idiot Travellers’ rules to see tourist hotspots at the best times.

Of these about a million are on the Ponte Vecchio , another million in the Uffizi gallery, 800,000 on Via por Santa Maria and its surrounds and the remaining 200,000 in the rest of the city. And none are out of bed at 6 am. Thus I am able to peruse all the important parts of the city devoid of teeming hordes of American tourists going “Oh my Gawd, Larry, won’t you look at that…..”

We arrive in Florence by train and decide to catch a taxi to our AirBnB even though subsequent experience tells us that a fat man with two broken legs could have walked there faster than the taxi.

Emerging from the station we are confronted with a taxi queue longer than Sydney airport’s. Unlike Sydney Airport, however, whoever is managing Florence station (or maybe no one is) has managed to work out that if you have three parallel queues of taxis this goes three times as fast as having a single queue. Nevertheless we have enough time for Kaylee to go in search of English language magazines at the nearby bookshop.

Forte di Belvedere & Museum – modern art, cafe and great views of Florence

Like gift shopping, searching for an English language magazine is an essential activity for Kaylee, not far removed from the junkie’s search for the next hit. Most of the magazines never actually get read (which one could argue separates her from junkies) but only for the reason that she is actually just addicted to the feel of the paper and the sound of the pages being turned. It is not necessary to read them. Approximately half the biomass of the Indonesian rainforests is stored in in piles of magazines which are festering in some part of her ex-home in Wandiligong (while she is temporarily in Turkey).

I am nearly at the front of the queue by the time she emerges weeping from the bookshop because all the magazines are in Italian. My stay in the queue has given me time to notice the six electric cars at their charging points opposite – cars which work on the same principal as hire bikes, such as Paris’s Velib system – which allows me to consider, once again, the extraordinary stupidity of Australian Governments where our transport and electricity systems are relics from the dark ages.

Car share

The electric car share experience – pretty much unavailable in Australia as a result of politicians with fewer brains than a dinosaur

We have just two days in Florence which is just sufficient to take an early morning tour of the most famous landmarks at times when they are devoid of visitors. There are not even any drunk Brits throwing up, or urinating, in some quiet corner of some quiet street when I venture out. My sole companions are keen photographers, joggers, street sweepers and the odd party goer returning from the night before.

Old cities are magnificent at dawn, the combination of the soft light caressing old stone, the echoes of the empty streets with just the odd footstep and the opportunity to appreciate the tempo of the city uninterrupted by a myriad vehicles and the vacant narcissism of selfie-takers.

The tranquility of Florence outside “Peak Tourist”

From our AirBnB to the Ponte Vecchio, past the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, the Piazza della Republica and around the Uffizi gallery, I encounter no more than a dozen people where, yesterday, to move in the street was to experience intimate contact with half of Florence. The Ponte Vecchio, in particular, is more a crowd than an actual bridge and it’s impossible to appreciate anything about this ancient structure at any time after about 9 am. At 6 am, however, the river and the bridge is a thing of beauty with the old buildings lit by the rising sun.

Ponte Vecchio – at “Peak Tourist” it’s more a crowd than a bridge

Just on the other side of the Arno River at Peak Tourist (see my blog on Prague here for a definition) you can escape to the gardens and museums of the Giardino Bardini and the Giardino de Boboli, and their adjacent museums, where the crowds drop off by 90%, despite being in spitting distance of the Ponte Vecchio. The gardens are sanctuaries of anti-tourism where you can sit uncrowded, if not actually alone, and admire the gardens and the Florentine city scape. A tour through the gardens and the Forte di Belvedere, and its modern museum, and then through the Palazza Pitti delivers one back to downtown Florence via the Ponte Santa Trinita.

Bardini and Bobini Gardens…a long way from “peak tourist”

Despite the crowds there are aspects of nearly all European cities that are part of that special experience and the vast amount of great street music and performance is one of those joys.

Late afternoon finds us almost back at our AirBnB on Via della Ruote and we decide that since it is “yardarm time¹ we will sample the delights of one of the many stylish restaurants so we drop into La Ménagère for a quick drink. This is, of course, one of the joys of Italy, great locations, good wine/great apertifs.

20170714_193700

No time too early for an aperitif in Florence – at La Ménagère

On our second day, we head out to visit Mürsel, a school colleague of Kaylee’s, who is conducting an orchestra in nearby Arezzo. This is a flying visit an hour down the track by train but gives us an opportunity to take in a bit of the surrounding countryside, as well as to experience the psychology experiment that tells you that if you are going to get attacked, do so in a quiet street.

As we are waiting at Arezzo station, for Mürsel, we hear a brouhaha. Two men are trying to take something from a woman, who starts shouting and screaming. The station is crowded with dozens of people but no one does anything, either just standing and watching or ignoring the scene entirely. Eventually, overcoming my natural cowardice, the sense that as a tourist it’s not really my obligation to intervene, and my lack of health insurance, I decide to intervene and walk over and try and inject myself, metaphorically speaking, between the antagonists.

They pay not a blind bit of attention to me and continue to struggle and scream at each other, allowing me to believe I am not about to be stabbed, imminently. At this point Kaylee has followed and, as I look around I notice, that the entire rest of the station has apparently been given permission by my intervention to treat the event as a participatory spectator sport, with many standing just a foot or two away. At this point two gendarmes arrive and I am able to make an exit. Tourism at its best with never a dull moment.

We have just two hours in Arezzo so only enough time to meet Mürsel and have coffee and cakes. Never mind the medieval ruins, there are always more bloody ruins in the next town, but free coffee and cake is too good to be missed. Mürsel recounts for us his trials and tribulations dealing with various bureaucracies around the world in his global peregrinations, most of which involve some form of Catch 22 where you have to apply for some form of identification but in order to apply for that identification you need the identification that you are applying for.

Next morning we head of the Italian equivalent of the TGV which takes us very fast to Bari and our ferry to Dubrovnik.

¹ “yardarm time

This post is the second in the series Europe 2017 – From Corsica to Bosnia – links to the previous post in the series are here: Corsica

For the Flickr archive that contains all all the images from which the photos in this post were selected click on this link

 

 

Europe 2017 (Episode 1): Corsica for ……short people, the credit card-less and mirror manufacturers

Somewhere in Corsica you will find the bodies. The poor fools that travelled up the Cap Corse without cash. Ostensibly we are in France a modern, 21st century nation. But not in Corsica. No you are in anti-France where the French are just more foreigners, credit cards are a yet to be discovered means of paying for things. Alternatively they are a trick played on innocent Corsicans by tourists and the Italians (Genovese) who were simply invaders that happened to hang around for a century or four.

Bastia & Bastia street photography

In Corsica, cash is still King. Moreover do not assume that in the absence of credit card facilities, the natives will provide ATMs. No, for the idiot traveller if you do not bring cash from one of the major cities, tough. You shall neither eat, nor drink, neither shall you refuel your vehicle or pay for a camp ground.

And do not question the natives about why they do not accept cards, for they will simply make like Atlas did, shrug their shoulders and say “C’est le culture, Monsieur”. And good day to you, please die quietly if you find yourself stranded in our fair land with no fuel and no food. That cash culture has, of course, nothing to do with the fact that the Corsicans are the nearest thing you can find in France to the Sicilians and like the Sicilians they have a similar aversion to the tax man.

The absence of modern day credit is, arguably, yet another symptom, of Corsican resistance to outsiders. Ask mainland French people about the idiosyncrasies of Corsica and they will simply shrug and say “Mais, c’est La Corse”. In other words..it’s Corsica, shit happens, as the Corsican resistance will explain to the French.

Bastia

During the centuries of occupation, variously, by the Genoese, the French, British, Italians, Germans etc the Corsicans have quietly gone about their business resisting all of them with the leading “hero” being Pasquale Paoli. Language signs are frequently in Italian and French and Corsican, which is a variation of Italian and which is still spoken if not widely then, at least, as a symbol of Corsican resistance. A sort of “fuck you” to outsiders.

Various movements, calling for either greater autonomy or complete independence from France, have been launched, some of whom have at times used violent means, like the National Front for the Liberation of Corsica (FLNC). In May 2001, the French government granted the island of Corsica limited autonomy, launching a process of devolution in an attempt to end the push for nationalism.

Other than the risk of starvation and general penury Corsica also offers death by cliff diving. Somewhere, over the cliff, lie the broken vehicles and battered bodies of tourists who were too nervous for Corsica roads. The secret to driving on Corsican roads is to have nerves of steel and never to assume that around the next “s” bend a Corsican driver will not appear, on the wrong side of the road, attempting to overtake a tourist in a camper van.

Drivers of camper vans, are the devil incarnate. A brief conversation with a very pleasant Corsican shopkeeper revealed yet again the fundamental truth of tourism. Yes, they love tourist dollars but hate tourists and hate the drivers of camper vans most of all. Especially the big fat camper vans like the one we were driving. While not quite the cause of the last two world wars, tourism simply perpetuates the bad feeling created a by a plethora of historical invasions.

This van was supplied by a Portuguese company which, rather in the way God/Allah visited religion on Earth as a permanent scourge and bad joke, decided, as another sick joke, to visit on planet earth and, especially Corsica, vehicles that are fundamentally unsuitable for Corsica.  These vans are at least a foot wider than can reasonably be accommodated by Corsican roads resulting in thousands of tourists being permanently psychologically damaged by their driving experiences . 

Porto

The principal beneficiary of this decision by the car hire firm are the manufacturers of wing mirrors. Scattered along the roads of Corsica are about half the vehicle wing mirrors ever produced in the history of human kind, each one testimony to a soul permanently scarred by their experience of driving on Corsican roads. If the mirrors could speak they would record a multitude of humans now permanently scarred with anxiety about plunging off mountainous roads and a myriad of relationships damaged forever by arguments over whether to risk a head on with oncoming vehicles or a side-swipe with adjacent cliff faces.

The other trick the Portuguese visited on us was to decide that no one over 170 centimetres should hire their vans but they failed to tell the potential hirers of this limitation nor to explain why it was imposed.

Perhaps they decided that “short people got no reason to live” as advocated by Randy Newman so they planned to hire their vans only to short people who then kill themselves driving vans that are too wide for narrow roads. Regardless, as a person of “normal” height, as a result I spent the entire trip around Corsica sleeping in a semi-foetal position due to the shortness of the bed.

The upside of all this is a land of spectacular mountains, crystal clear creeks, alpine lakes and ancient hill top towns. Corsica is nothing if not a paradise for those who love the outdoors. Some of Europe’s best walking, paragliding, canyoning, cycling, diving and much else.

The GL20 is reputed to be the hardest long distance walk in Corsica along the spine of the island. We are somewhat less ambitious in our walking plans primarily because the inside of my right knee, according to the specialist, looks like the human knee equivalent of Pompeii after Vesuvius erupted. Almost nothing left and what is left is in complete ruins.

Our mini tour of Corsica starts in Bastia, where our host deposits us in one of the best AirBnBs ever, brand new, luxuriously appointed and overlooking the main square and hills. We try and overlook the fact that some poor Corsican is probably living on the streets as a result. Our vehicle is a Fiat rented from Indie Campers.

Once I have picked it up,  I am almost immediately forced to perform my first idiot tourist manoeuvre. Just as I am planning to enter a bypass tunnel with my 2.75 metre van I note the tunnel is only 2.6 metres high. There are cars behind me. I cannot go forward and I cannot go back. The only way out is over the 20 centimetre high concrete dividing strip which I have to hope to pass over without either losing the exhaust, rupturing the tyres or compressing the entire underside of the van.

Bastia’s main road comes to a standstill as I perform my escape. Had the dividing strip been just 2-3 cms higher I would have ended up trapped on it with the van balanced half on one side and half on the other, and unable to go either forward and back. My excellent judgement and driving skills, however, avoided that fate.

Cap Corse

After this auspicious start we head across the island to Saint Florent. We have been advised that there is a “sauvage” (wild) walk along the coast. Very gorgeous we are told. And so in a way it is. But sauvage it is not.

That is unless would describe as “wild” a coast dotted with tea cafes and water stops and populated by, apparently, half the population of Corsica. Even were the coast wild there are, immediately offshore, more yachts/boats than were sent to Dunkirk to rescue the British expeditionary force. The only thing deserted about the allegedly deserted beach is the presence of sand. No mind, we shall not whinge and we shall enjoy the water.

The next day takes us on our credit card and cashless tour of Cap Corse along the spectacular winding roads and through a plethora of fantastic hill and coastal towns. The highlight of the day is our visit to Nonza perched spectacularly above it’s black pebble beach and its iconic white stone “angel” laid out in white rocks on the black bench.

It’s actually intended, we think, to be an image of St Julia the patron saint of Corsica who was martyred in Nonza in the 5th century and after whom the Nonza church of St Julie is named. In keeping with the Corsican tradition of trying to ignore foreigners, such as the French, there are no explanatory signs.

Nonza

The legend tells that after she was martyred (crucified) her breasts were cut off and thrown at the rock, which immediately and miraculously gave rise to the natural water springs at the site. If you descend to the beach along the path you can drink at this spring in celebration of the inhumanity of the Pagan Romans towards the Christians.

A level of inhumanity which of course the Christians have repaid in spades by continuing to murder people of other faiths for centuries right up until today. At the beach you can inspect the beach drawings, made from white rocks on black, including that of Julia. It’s also a good spot for a swim on a calm day, despite the multiple admonitions not to swim due the dangerous currents – of which we found no evidence.

Nonza is also famous for the heroics of a lone Corsican soldier who, after all his colleagues had deserted, held out against the French invading forces. He, Jacques Casella, is celebrated as a Corsican hero and honoured by a plaque in the hilltop fort. Apparently he managed to persuade the French army that there were several dozen Corsicans firing on them.  Given that when the average French person takes their one hour lunch break they come back three hours later we can assume the French are not good with numbers.

Nonza

From Nonza we circulate around the Cap Corse, getting progressively more hungry and thirsty before finally at about our tenth attempt we find a bar which accepts credit cards.

The route off the Cape takes us back through Bastia and then on up to the mountains south, heading for Lac Melo a popular walk not far from Corte. The last 5 kilometres or so is a narrow one lane road. Negotiating this road involves a lot of luck in not meeting a vehicle coming the other way.

The principal goal here is to play a good game of bluff and chicken in which you try to get the other party to back up. If I fail to intimidate the oncoming driver I have to reverse my overlarge vehicle for dozens or more metres down a road where even going forward you require centimetre perfect judgement to avoid going over the edge. Apparently there used to be a shuttle bus with no vehicles allowed, but the Corsicans have decided life is more amusing watching the tourists negotiate the road and, hopefully killing themselves doing so.

Lac de Melo

Eventually we stop and hitch the last two to three kilometres because the signs all tell us that no camper vans are allowed further up the road. When we arrive we find, of course, that almost everyone has ignored those signs which reminds me, once again, that it is best to sin first and ask forgiveness later.

We walk to Lac Melo, a two hour walk which we share with a good proportion of the Corsican population as well as half of the visitors to Corsica, all of whom appear to be following us from place to place. On the walk up I admire the mixture of absurdly old and overweight people and tiny children who are struggling up the walk. They are probably thinking the same of me….look at that old bastard going to the lake.

On our return we hitch back to the vehicle where we stop and spend two hours lolling around in the mountain creek that runs out of the lake. This is one of the great joys of Corsica; a plethora of beautiful crystal clear mountain creeks with icy water warmed just sufficiently by the summer sun to allow pleasant swimming.

Even better there are multiple large flat rocks suitable for sun-baking and reading. We sleep by the banks of the same creek with the soothing sound of running water outside the van, after consuming a great wood fired pizza at the ‘Camping de Tuani’ campground cafe.

From here our trajectory takes over to Ajaccio and up the west coast of Corsica, stopping at Cascade des Anglais (the waterfall of the English), Piana. Porto, Ota, Venaco and back to Bastia from where our ferry leaves for Italy.

The only thing English about the Cascade des Anglais is, arguably, the crowds. We don’t come across any English people and the weather, mountains and forests are very un-English. Apart from anything it’s in Europe which the English, except arguably geologically speaking, are not. This central area of Corsica contains some of the best walking in Europe. Despite the teeming hordes we spend a pleasant half day in the area which includes sampling the local Corsican gelato which, for information, is nothing special.

Near Piana, which boasts some magnificent blue gums, we walk out to Capo Rosso (Red Cape). The full walk takes one to the old hill fort tower on the highest point. Very cleverly a combination of Idiot Traveller timing and lack of preparation, ensures that we reach the most exposed, steepest, part of the walk at the hottest time of day. Here my errant right knee decides that more than four hours walking is too much. These multiple misfortunes combine to stymie our effort at peak bagging. So an hour short of our target we turn around.

Capo Rosso

This is fortunate because with only three hours water for a six hour walk we just manage to avoid the European equivalent of the headlines one sees often in Australia. By that I mean a newspaper headline where some Idiot Travellers succumb to heatstroke and die because they thought that Uluru was only a short stroll from Alice Springs. Despite our attempts at an early death, we return having enjoyed a great walk perched high above the Mediterranean Coast with stunning views back across the bay on which Piana sits.

Piana, itself, is one of those small unspoiled clifftop coastal towns of the sort that one finds scattered throughout Italy. Unlike many of the beachside towns it is relatively uncrowded and the locals haven’t been overrun to the degree that the only people one meets are tourists.

We stroll the narrow streets down to the magnificent red cliffs which drop sheer to the deep blue hundreds of metres below. The contrast between the ocean and the cliffs is why Piana is considered one of the most scenic towns in Corsica. Almost every house has magnificent views and relative to Australia prices are cheap – only $1.1 million for your four bedroom holiday home…

Restonica

After Piana, we drop down to Porto and imbibe a bit of local history at the ancient Genoese fort (built in the 16th and early 17th centuries to protect the Genoese occupiers from invaders), including such useful information as the fact that the name of the French resistance, the Maquis, comes from the impenetrable local scrub. The port is a gem but the town itself has been partially ruined by too many ugly tourist buildings that don’t fit in.

Then on through the mountains via Ota and Evisa via the Gorges de Spelunca. The gorge itself is a popular stopping point en route through the magnificent scenery of the area. The track up the gorge follows an old route between the villages. It passes over the Ponte à Zaglia bridge which was built four hundred years ago to make life easier for the locals who traded and passed up and down the track.

It’s an easy walk up the gorge as far as the bridge and because the majority of people can’t be bothered to do the simple 60 minute walk many of best swimming holes away from the bridge are relatively uncrowded. For those with more time there are longer multi day walks through the river gorges.

Spelunca Gorge

From here it is back to Bastia for a final overnight stay before heading for Italy. The last night in Bastia is supposed to be a relaxing evening of dinner and drinks but we arrive to encounter one of the banes of AirBnB…a host that isn’t there and doesn’t answer her door, despite having replied 30 minutes earlier and said she would be.

At this point we have no vehicle, no patience, no vehicle and lots of luggage (that being a relative term – in fact we have two main bags each less than 10kg and two hand/man bags). We ring, we phone, we text. We contemplate a bomb scare to get everyone to evacuate on the basis that we can then ask around and find our hosts. We can get into the building and we can get to the correct floor but can find no door with the correct name.

After 3o minutes I go looking for other hotels. As I return I get a phone call – since Kaylee is not, apparently, an Idiot Traveller*** she has worked out that there are two halves to the building. In our initial exploration we were only looking for name plates on the the flats on the eastern side. Having found the flat Kaylee has managed to waken the hosts from their primordial slumber.

***Note: Kaylee avoids being an Idiot Traveller by not doing any travel bookings. With her latent (and largely un-used) internet booking skills if she were to actually try and book anything one can be sure that she would end up in Sydney, Canada, rather than Sydney, Australia and/or Paris, Texas rather than Paris, France.

It turns out that one of hosts had fallen asleep and the other was outside on the front verandah where, allegedly, she could not hear the bell. This is despite the fact that when we eventually get to her door and ring the bell half of the living dead are also awoken from a centuries long sleep.

We enter the flat and it is clear to the host that Kaylee is not happy – the host gets a frosty reception and starts to apologise profusely. Fortunately, it turns out that they are both very pleasant so normal relations are quickly restored and we soon decamp to one of their recommended restaurants where we are entertained by multiple street bands and good food and wine.

This is the first post in the series of five entitled: Europe 2017 – From Corsica to Bosnia

You can find the full archive of the images used in this post by clicking here:

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.

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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.

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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

 

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