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 and credit cards are a yet to be discovered means of paying for things.

Alternatively credit cards are a trick played on innocent Corsicans by both 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, French and Corsican. The latter is a variation of Italian and is still spoken, if not widely then, at least occasionally, 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 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, the invasion of tourists simply perpetuates the bad feeling created by a plethora of other 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, similarly decided 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 to rent vehicles that are too large for the roads, 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, 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, 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 fact that it has been deserted by 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.

The inhumanity of the Romans towards the Christians was of course  well and truly repaid in spades, by the Christians, who proceeded 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 further 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. Later, we stop for the night and 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
At Capo Rosso

The decision to turn around 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).

This includes 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 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 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 30 minutes I go looking for other hotels. As I return to the AirBnB building,  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 15) – Rome

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

First, however, I must survive the trip to Bari, deck class. Travel terms are a bit like those used by real estate agents.

When you buy a house (not that most people will ever be able to), you go out on the deck/verandah, tie yourself to the handrail, stand on it, peer through your binoculars at the tiny window of blue ocean and ask “Is that what you mean when you say ‘ocean glimpses'”. To which the real estate agent replies, “No that is what we call expansive ocean views”

Leaving Dubrovnik for Bari, Italy

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

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

Random Rome – 1 – round every corner a little treat

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Unexpected explosions of old buildings on the new

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

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

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

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

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

“Luigi, what are you doing, today?”

“Nothing Paolo”

“Please go and sharpen our fence”

“But Paolo, I only did that yesterday”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trajan’s Market and Trajan’s column

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the Colosseum you can see the marks where the Church removed the marble

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rome by night. The Roman forum (top), Trajan’s market 

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

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

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

Amen.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Beer, slow trains, rain and more rain

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

The trains are so slow you’d think we were in the19th century. They creak and groan as they wend their way around the never-ending bends and the wheels howl on the tracks like some lost soul in Trump’s nightmare America. I could be anywhere in the Great Brown Land (that’s Australia, for those unfamiliar with the term). Except maybe for the rain.

Dubrovnik, dawn

I had hoped to travel all the way to Dubrovnik by nightfall but it turns out that the timetables and routes didn’t correspond with my reality. As the rain falls I ensconce myself in the dining car – the only place with a power socket – so that I can finish the unfinished travel stories of the last week or so.

Invariably restaurant cars are the best place to travel, if you can. Proper tables, coffee, relative quiet and more space. You can read, write, eat, drink and stare out at the passing landscape.

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

As we moan and screech our way through the mountains this sense is elevated by the pantomime when, at each successive tiny station, regardless of whether we stop or not, the guardian of the station emerges replete with uniform and signalling flags.

He, because so far as I can see it is always a he, proceeds, like some character out of a historical railway pageant. This involves performing a series of marionette-like gestures with the two flags. Thus he conveys a signal, implying who knows what, to the train driver.

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

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

It turns out that there is a music festival on in Split. This is something I find out when I start a discussion with my fellow travellers across the aisle about why the train is so full and where they are going.

They proceed to attempt to reduce me, without success since I have been forewarned about East Europeans bearing gifts, to the same level of inebriation as they are enjoying. They do this with the offer of an unrelenting supply of beer which, no matter how much is drunk, continues to emerge, like some liquid form of the Magic Pudding.

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

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

Leaving aside the stone horseflesh, Zagreb offers plenty of choice if you like old buildings, churches, monuments, gardens and squares – and all within a gentle 20 minute stroll from the train station. In addition there is the ubiquitous daily market.

I undertake a sprinter’s tour of the cathedral, which is particularly magnificent as churches go, the main street, and the market and locate something approaching a tolerable coffee. Then I was able to say “my work is done here”, my tour returning me to the station with 30 minutes to spare.

Zagreb Cathedral

We arrive in Split after dark. I have two choices. Stay at an hotel in Split and take the ferry in the morning or catch the bus down the coast a couple of hours later. The former is significantly more expensive and more hassle but has the attraction of a good nights sleep and avoiding two hours hanging around in the bus/train station.

The bus station has all the charm of a Russian security guard and, if you want to eat, requires one to have a worse diet than that Russian guard. Nevertheless I opt for the bus.

The Dubrovnik arrival is early in the morning, at the bus station next to the port. From here it is a 15 minute bus ride to my AirBnB.

The first rule of Dubrovnik in regard to finding your accommodation is that there are no rules other than ‘don’t panic’. The good traveller and even the Idiot Traveller knows that everything will come to those that are patient.

Do not assume there will be street names. Nor should you assume that your AirBnB will actually be on the street which it claims to be. Even if it is, the actual entrance will be down a side alley, shrouded in bushes, through an arch and around several turns.

Dubrovnik at night

In these circumstances you should ring and get directions: The convo goes as follows:

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

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

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

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

Dubrovnik by night

So you describe it in intricate detail such that no local could possibly be unable to identify the place:

“Well, it’s a square right under the city wall, there is the hotel (previously described), there is a shop selling vegetables, a house (#15 – the same number as the one I am looking for), with two stone steps and many pots of flowers in front.

There is a person selling shawls, there is another AirBnB, there are steps up to the city walls, there is a mural of King Kong. There is a lunatic asylum, four second hand London double decker buses and a model of an A380. Then there is a French patisserie, a statue of Winston Churchill and 15 black sheep and a camel grazing in someone’s front yard…”

En route to AirBnB #2, Dubrovnik

“I’m sorry, Chris, I don’t know that place, please tell me the name of the street…? Please wait.”

And so it goes. What we are waiting for and why, we are not told. At this point the phone goes dead leaving us lost, abandoned and with a $20 bill for an international phone call.

The point being that no matter how detailed the description you can be sure that “I don’t know that place” is the correct host response.

Nevertheless, seconds later an elderly woman will emerge from the doorway, which I had suspected was the correct one and which I had described in loving detail, and will embrace you, metaphorically, (sometimes literally) like her long lost child.

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

Dubrovnik night

The AirBnB which I enter is is AirBnB grade 1…as opposed to AirBnB Grade 10, the latter being my normal, and positive, experience of AirBnB, despite AirBnB being an evil institution.

To be fair that is a slight exaggeration but, nevertheless, the apparently spacious and airy room/unit with shared bathroom, as pictured, turns out to be a poky flat with four bedrooms each occupied by at least two people. Which, had Idiot Traveller read further down the page where it gave the description, instead of just looking at the pictures, I would have known

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

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

Night falls on Dubrovnik at full moon

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

Chief grumble, for me, apart from the obvious over-crowding is that the city walls, which in the day time swarm with a non-stop stream of people, don’t open until 8 am and close at 7.30 pm (earlier at certain times of year). I also detest that fact that almost no local people can afford to live in the old city any more (thanks to people like me)

Given that dawn and dusk are the optimum time to be on the walls the closing times for access to the wall make no sense at all. You can almost hear the wailing and gnashing of teeth of those who are refused access to the wall at the very times when it is best enjoyed.

On the Dubrovnik walls at night

On the positive side, if you are prepared to risk life and limb, a quick shimmy up the walls in the south-eastern corner will allow you to get in for free and avoid the crowds, as well as enjoying the best times of day. There is a silver lining to everything.

Dubrovnik main drag – in the very early morning, sans tourists

So I found myself on top the wall, one evening, sharing the views and the soft evening light with two couples, one from Dubai and one Italian/Romanian couple.

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

Dubrovnik dawn

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

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

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

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

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

Trsteno harbour and Aboretum

Dubrovnik has two million visitors a year of whom, it appears, about 75% visit in June, July and August. Each day brings a new swarm of 20,000 people to a city where the population is 28,000 of whom just 1000 now live in the old city, Almost all of these come to visit the old city which is so small that you can walk from one end to the other in about five minutes.

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

Trsteno harbour and arboretum

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

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

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By the old plane tree

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

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

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

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

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

97 Days Adrift in Europe (Part 13) – Budapest

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

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

After a dozen cities and a myriad palaces, ancient bridges, tunnels, churches, squares and museums, one may get what I refer to as ‘Chateaux Fatigue’. It’s a syndrome bought on by travelling through parts of the world from which you would never escape were you to look at every magnificent building built between the birth of the Christ figure and about 1900.

It can take other forms such as “Cathedral Fatigue”, “Gondola Fatigue” (Monty Python c. minute 9.25), “Roman Ruin Fatigue etc.

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

“What are you doing today, Louis?”.

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

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

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

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

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

 

Even the utility covers are elegant

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

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Budapest Keleti Station

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

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

Blue Danube? Or black or grey

The point about the Danube is not its blueness but its role in myth, legend, history and culture.

F. László Földényi, probably the only man in human history to have four diacritical letters in his name, describes its place in the European psyche beautifully in this blog  from 2011 in which he describes the Danube thus:

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

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

Like the Szechenyi Baths, the bridge is named after Count Istvan Szechenyi who is often spoken of as the greatest ever Hungarian. Normally in European history this means that you killed a lot of innocent people, mainly nasty foreigners, although occasionally it’s your own mob, as in Stalin, Pol Pot.

To be fair to Szechenyi he does appear to have been a reformer, albeit a conservative one, if that is not too contradictory.

Nowadays you don’t have to do anything to kill millions of people, if you are a politician. You just do nothing, as per Australian politicians such as Abbott and Turnbull, who are deliberately and consciously consigning millions to death by doing nothing on climate change.

Fortunately most of the people who will die (at least from the perspective of Abbott and Turnbull) are black, yellow or brown.

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

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

The Hungarian Parliament buildings are a sort of poor man’s version of the UK Houses of Parliament. It is, nevertheless, a striking building, especially at night when reflected in the Danube.

Like most buildings of this type it is surrounded by statues – of men – men with guns, men on horses, men looking important. No women. If you aren’t killing or oppressing people you are not worthy of a statue.

Underground on Parliament’s Kossoff Square there is a great little museum to the 1956 uprising which initially succeeded and was then, subsequently, suppressed by Soviet troops.

The first day of the Hungarian uprising, 23 October, was declared a national holiday at the inauguration of the Third Hungarian Republic in 1989.

It would not be unreasonable to suggest that it is a somewhat better choice than Australia made with its Australia Day national holiday since the Hungarian day, in effect, celebrates liberation whereas Australia Day celebrates invasion and genocide.

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

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

At Szechenyi Chain Bridge you can see the famous Yoga cafe. This is a very special Hungarian tradition involving a combined eating area and yoga class.

When you have finished dinner and feel bloated and unwell you can work off your dinner with a free yoga class adjacent. In case this makes you feel unwell, buckets are provided.

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

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

My remaining three days in Hungary are taken up with exploring the the old city on the Pest side of Budapest. Buda and Pest were two completely separate cities until the Szechenyi  Bridge was built.

I also travelled upriver to visit Szentendre which was the centre of the Serbian community in Hungary, though only about 100 Serbs remain, today. The departure of the Serbs was because others were latterly as unpleasant to the Serbs as the Serbs have been to others.

The Serbs fled from Kosovo and southern regions of Serbia in fear of Turkish revenge. The Austrian Emperor, Leopold I, allowed Serbian refugees to cross the Danube in 1690, and during that period, many Serbian families settled in the region around Budapest.

Szentendre, known as Sentandreja in Serbian, thus became the religious, cultural and political centre of Serbs in Hungary. They were later persecuted in World Wars 1 and 2 and most fled back to Serbia.

Szentendre: lots of Serbian Orthodox church glitter plus artists markets

Szentendre is on the Danube River, north of Budapest and reached by a one hour local train ride. It’s known for its baroque architecture, churches, colourful houses and narrow, cobbled streets.

The main square, and the alleyways around it are lined with art galleries, museums and shops. Just off the square, the 18th-century Greek Orthodox Blagovestenska Church is worth a visit for the elaborate decor and an ornate partition screen.

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

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

My last day in Budapest takes me down to Heroes Square. It’s a half an hour walk from my AirBnB.

This area is half tourist trap and half locals hang-out, but is a must-visit area of Budapest.

Here in the City Park, one of Budapest’s largest inner city parks, you can find not only the said Heroes, on their horses, but Szechenyi Baths, the largest medicinal bath in Europe.

There is also Vajdahunyad Castle on its lake, the Zoo and Botanical Gardens and two museums, the Kunstalle Art Gallery (contemporary art) and the Museum of Fine Art. And you can easily get there via Metro to the Szechenyi station on the M1 (yellow line).

Vajdahunyad Castle is yet another monument to nationalism, Christianity and war – and their brother, genocide and persecution.

One could argue that Christianity and war are pretty much the same – or at least cause and effect.

The castle was built in 1896 as part of the Millennial Exhibition which celebrated the 1,000 years of Hungary and Magyar history since the Hungarian Conquest of the Carpathian Basin in 895.

In its juxtaposition with Heroes Square, built at the same time, one is left in no doubt about the role of men in religion and nationalism, and the associated blood and gore.

Vajdhunyad Castle and Heroes Square. More monuments to militarism

From an egalitarian point of view the sole redeeming feature of Heroes Square (apart from artistic value) is that when the monument was originally constructed the last five spaces, on the left of the colonnade, were reserved for members of the ruling Habsburg dynasty.

The Habsburg emperors, in a fit of democracy, were replaced with Hungarian freedom fighters when the monument was rebuilt after World War II.

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

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

As a result, for my sins, I came face to face with a remnant of East European customer service. This occurred in the person of a very large, very unfriendly, cross between a staff member and a concentration camp guard.  Her version of customer service was to shout at me when I attempted to ask her simple questions about entering the baths.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

 


 

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

Aside from the most obvious perils of traveling overseas such as lost passports, lost cameras, lost phones and lost minds, travel offers one of the great pleasures of life – some of the best Catch 22s that you can possibly experience.

These include things such as the phone that won’t work, where you email your phone company which 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 their expense. But in order for the phone company to levy that surcharge, a change to the set up is required which itself requires the account holder to speak to them. But the account holder happens to be in another country.

This is because because the rules won’t allow you to purchase a sim card without a residential address in Europe and so you needed a local resident who could purchase the sim card for you – 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.

Then there is the car hire firm where only one of you has a licence but the money to pay for the hiring 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 that you omitted to pay before leaving home. Ok no problem, you open your internet banking…payee, amount, press pay. The pop up appears. A code is required. Please request a code – which you will receive on your Australian sim card.

Damn….you remember you changed your sim card from your Australian one to your Europe-wide one and forgot to change your phone number on the bank’s system. 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 can 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 22/1 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 remotely. 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 22/1 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.

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. It’s very beautiful in parts and is best seen from the left hand side when travelling to Prague.

Prague’s station, Praha Masarykovo 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 any possessions.

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, Kristina and Anna. The official host, Kristina is away so I am met by Anna, whom Kristina 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 – which, I suppose, means at least one might be.

As it turns out those expectations are not misplaced, especially after Kristÿna Kostová returns. It turns out that she is 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.

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.

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.

http://https://youtu.be/3xAyRjfEWGg

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.

http://https://youtu.be/Nexr0ws4yWo

From the bridge, I am wander the empty back streets of Prague’s Mala Strana district, heading upriver to 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.

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.

http://https://youtu.be/HopnJfQ_RfY

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. 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 Mësto). 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.

Prague Castle was the site of two of the famous defenestrations (from the French fenêtre meaning window, so literally de-windowed). The first occurred 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

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 sheer number of visitors. 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.

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….

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 and 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 human-like 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 so as 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 main drawback of the lurgi 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. If you have studied history, you know that, intuitively, 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 to the the Reichstag building where the German Bundestag (Parliament) sits. The Brandenburg gate is, itself, a symbol of the dominance of the military in that part of German history which led to both WW1 and WW2,

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, was a symbol of German power and 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 ankle is not. 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.

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. 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.

The wall is hard to follow, in places disappearing 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 channel of sewage line with a bit of added water rather 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.

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 to 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.

Here photographer, Kai Wiedenhoefer, assembled an exhibition called “WARonWALL“. The exhibition focuses on the legacy of the Syrian war for the individuals maimed by it. As

Wiedenhoefer 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.”

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 Wiedenhoefer’s images here, including the accompanying stories.  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.

Elsewhere there are the Jewish Museum, the recreated Checkpoint Charlie, the memorials to those who died trying to escape, the Russian War Memorial and 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 content. Just like the Australian, in fact. Die Bild has been described as “notorious for its mix of gossip, inflammatory language, and sensationalism” and as having a huge influence on German politicians.

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. By following them you can 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.

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, because screened and with warnings not to enter, it is like a beacon tempting all who pass. 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 is, like most deserted places,  somewhere with a magnetism emanating from the way nature reclaims the derelict spaces of humans.

The ability to have such places entirely to oneself, is an added attraction, as are the risks posed by abandoned buildings and equipment 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.

The Government has increased security to ensure no repeats of the 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. 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 quesion is distraction enough and he launches into a dissertation of dangers including drowning in the water train, falling off the ferris wheel etc. My ID 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.”

On my way back I visit the Russian War Memorial. Before the Soviet Union built the Stalingrad memorial this was the world’s largest Russian memorial. It’s massive and very Russian and masculine in its glorification of heroic figures and with a 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 was a suitably random decision a bit like the answer to the question about why you climbed Everest…Because it was there. But it’s also logical as it’s one of the best places for paragliding, cycling, walking and water sports.

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 possibility 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.

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 simple 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.

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 or who 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 they tend to prod you, thus disturbing your imminent decline into sleep. Failing any 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.

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 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.

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 to 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.

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.

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.

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 (b) enjoy the experiences that come with such risks and (c) 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.

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 at all) 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.

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.

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

If you choose to do this and cycle 500 metres down the road,  you can share a beautiful spot with just 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.

On my final two nights I have to move accommodation having been unable to find a place that could accommodate me 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 á 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.

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.

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 below:

Annecy General

Annecy Paragliding

 

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

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

Mont Sainte-Victoire
Mont Sainte-Victoire

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

Aix, colours – one of many galleries

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

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

Bernard, Dave, Self Safari cottages

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

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

In Arles, with Bernard
In Arles, with Bernard

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

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

Lunch in Aix en Provence
Lunch in Aix en Provence

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

On the Rhône with Bernard
On the Rhône with Bernard

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

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

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

Dinner at Jean Jaques
Dinner with Jean Jaques, in 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Arena, Nîmes
The Arena, Nîmes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arles, Arena, bullfight
Arles, Arena, bullfight

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

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

Nîmes, main pedestrian street
Nîmes, main pedestrian street

 

Nadine despairs of reforming Bernard
Nadine despairs of reforming Bernard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dinner in Arles
Dinner in Arles

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

  1. Part 3 – Travelling Idiot Style
  2. Part 4 – Explaining Manspreading
  3. Part 6 – Travelling South
  4. Part 7 – Scribblings from a Trip

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

97 Days Adrift in Europe (Part 5, Paris)

Passing by Paris; Brexit, soccer and other lies

I’m on my way to Sablet for a mixture of a wake and a celebration; a wake, of sorts, for the death of Lincoln Siliakus who died almost a year ago this month – and a celebration of a life well lived. And also a celebration of the opening of a new studio by his lifetime partner, Anne Froger – one in which she will develop dyeing with natural plant dyes.

Regrettably, for those of us in our late 50s and early 60s we have reached the time of life when people we have known most of our lives have started dying or getting ill. I shared many good times with Lincoln, the Franklin campaign, a shared house in Hobart for a year or so (along with Jill Hickie), times lobbying together in Paris, dealing with Gough Whitlam, as ambassador to UNESCO, walking the back lanes of the Cote du Rhone vineries, all washed down with copious quantities of good wine and bread.

Lunch with Lincoln at Gigondas

Sometimes, too late, we realise that we have missed the opportunity to see those friends again, to reminisce – telling increasingly untrue stories as the night lengthens, and to spend time sharing the things we like to share.

But first I must overnight in Paris. That means passing through the Gare du Nord, which is where the Eurostar arrives from the UK. Passing through Gare du Nord after travelling on the Eurostar is a bit like stepping out of a Rolls Royce into a mess of dog shit.

You are borne along in air-conditioned comfort on an almost silent train at 300 plus kilometres an hour and arrive in a railway station where there is nowhere to sit, nowhere decent to eat, no decent signage, a help desk that is closed, and a ticket office where you need to take lunch and dinner with you into the queue in order not to starve before arriving at the ticket counter.

GDN
Gare du Nord, at its best

Usually there there is a crowd larger than that found in the average football stadium milling around in the middle of the station obstructing any possibility of moving around the station. Everyone is forced to stand poised like a vulture over there luggage to prevent theft.  This is, primarily, because there is nowhere to sit and even if you can find somewhere to sit it’s almost impossible to know what is going on with train departures without going back to the centre of the station. To get anywhere in the station you need to have a better sidestep than the world’s best rugby winger and more go forward than Smokin’ Joe Frazier.

Currently the situation is exacerbated by the decision to renovate the station at the height of the tourist season thus reducing the available space by about 40 per cent.

It’s almost of as if the French spent years building a railway and forgot that it needed to arrive somewhere. At which point they shrugged and said “..Well it is mainly ‘Les Rosbifs’ (Britons) so who cares. At the other end of the tunnel is Britain’s newly renovated Pancras Station which has seats, shops, cafes, a modicum of space and light. Give credit where due, it may be the only useful thing that the British have done in a 100 years.

I’m staying with an old friend from Greenpeace days, Stephanie Lacomblez who worked for Enercoop in the adjacent office; finding places to stay in Paris is problematic because most people either live by themselves in places no bigger than the average dog box or they share and have no spare rooms. Stephanie’s flatmate is away so I hit the jackpot, this time.

It’s just a couple of stops from Gare du Nord, where the Eurostar arrives, to Stalingrad (no not that one), where I shall pick up the key to Stephanie’s flat from Jon Sofier, who works for Enercoop. Jon is an UK expat who has lived in France for more than 15 years, speaks fluent French but somehow remains convincingly British in style, demeanour, if not attitudes. Somehow he is the exemplar of those you might say “you can take him out of Britain but you can’t take….”

I am abandoned in the Enercoop office while Jon goes to pick up his new girlfriend. Enercoop is the new face of France – a company selling 100% renewable energy to French businesses and households. The Paris office has around 60 staff, up from only 7 years ago. That according to my somewhat useless maths is a 1200% growth in that time.

Flammanville
Flammanville – years late, billions over budget

Seven years ago nuclear was still an article of faith in France, now increasingly it is seen as yesterday’s energy. Too expensive (the new plants are years late and billions over budget and, if they were to sell their energy unsubsidised it’s doubtful they would sell any), too unreliable (the majority of plants are 30 years old or more) and reliant for cooling on water than is frequently not available. At one stage in 2008 around fifty per cent of the entire nuclear fleet was offline for this reason.

La Belle Equipe

It’s my first night in Paris in several years and we head off for drinks and dinner. It is only a matter of weeks since the bombing of the Bataclan, Le Petit Cambodge, Le Carillon and the Belle Equipe, among other places. Despite this, at least superficially, the city appears little changed with crowds of people sitting outside every tiny bar, little sign of security except near police stations and railway stations and, even then, it’s spasmodic. Stephanie patronises La Belle Equipe and it is sobering to think that that it is only luck that prevents people you know being caught up in these events.

Beyond that Paris seems a little poorer, more frayed around the edges, dirtier with more homeless people and bigger groups of apparently indigent people standing around on street corners, even in the areas I know well.

The tiny bar we go into, just 200 metres from La Belle Equipe, another of the bars bombed on the night of November 13, is full of Parisians having a Friday night out and a group of English soccer supporters politely and pleasantly enjoying an evening in the ambiance of a typical French wine bar. The night descends into a mixture of repartee, insults and the sort of amicable European fraternity that the average Brexiter seems not to understand.

On my way back from dinner, I pass a local bar and, glancing at the TV, note that England are losing 2-1 to Iceland. The bar being far from the throngs of football tourists is only half full but, nevertheless, I discover that there are people from Ireland, France, Australia and Spain in the bar. All are busily barracking for the Icelanders. I feel this is too good an opportunity to be missed particularly in the light of Australia having just lost two rugby tests to the perfidious English (or Perfide Albion, as an ex-colleague insisted on calling them – Albion being an ancient name for the UK).

One of the immutable iron-laws of sport and almost anything else is that if England are playing any nation at any sport, you may have 160 nationalities in the bar including some English people and 159 of those nationalities will be supporting England’s opponents. I recounted, for the English soccer fans, earlier in the evening, the tale of being in a Paris bar where we counted around 20 nationalities and only one was supporting England. He was English – and even he wasn’t certain he wasn’t making a mistake.

Golden temple massacre – British troops opened fire of a peaceful crowd

This rule is written in stone because of 200 years of British imperialism and the irredeemable English arrogance that went with it, as reinforced, recently, by a correspondent of mine on Facebook. This correspondent noted that with Brexit, Britain would get the chance to be “great again” as they were during 1000 years of empire. He was unpleased when I noted that (a) the British Empire endured for around 100 years not 1000 (b) It did not make Britain great but, rather, a scandalous example of exploitation, racism and genocide, (c) So far as I was aware the year was 2016 not 1816; and (d) the Great in Great Britain did not refer to any sense of virtue but merely to a Great Britain which included Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland rather than a diminished Britain without those parts.

On this particular occasion, leaving aside, the natural support for Iceland as underdog and the fact that the entire Icelandic footballing budget including travel and wages was approximately equal to the cost of one of Wayne Rooney’s boots, this was a matter of a few days after the disastrous and, to most Europeans, entirely bemusing Brexit decision. As several of the people in the bar noted, if nothing else, it was an appropriate revenge for Brexit.

This is Part 5 of the blog series “97 Days Adrift in Europe”. Links to other episodes and related content can be found below:

  1. Part 3 – Travelling Idiot Style
  2. Part 4 – Explaining Manspreading

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