Sunday, August 30, 2009

South to North: a coach ride and a geographical snapshot of the countryside upto Oviedo

We bade goodbye to Luis at the bus station in Cacares, near to Trujillo, and I was sad as he had become a friend. The way out of Extramadura in August cuts across a dun coloured Savannah like terrain, beetle cattle scattered across it, strange int heir brown wobbly flesh, shiny skinny ribs and cardboard rectangular shapes. Low buffon trees stood in silence, exotic drinking vessels standing on black shadowed beer mats. Time skulked and idled, it was hot.
Land runs freely here, among the trees and up and down the hills without interruption by field marking or fence. On stranded hillocks, boulders the size of the houses, piling up on top of each other, leaning in like indolent teenagers.
Nearing Salmanca, the yellow ground sprung green and brown, blue-green fruit tress flashing their silica leaves in the sun. A large reservoir, faced off around its edge by bright white sand was surrounded by the massive heights of the Sierra de Gredos, part of the Sistema Central mountain range. According to the map, the highest peak seen from my view was the 2400 metre whopper, Calvitevo. These peaks have ground down summits of fine rubble, with stunted trees and bushes making it up to near the top, the heights simple and inviting to exploration, serene below the space helmet moon. A miscellany of small valleys lay down below the coach, wrung around with walled fields along their contours, making a patchwork pattern. At a pass between high points, the stone wall etched fields are like riveted bands making the burned hills appear as leathery helmets.
On the way to Zamora, the land becomes less chaotic in design and altogether more boring and affluent. Square constructions and an agriculture with a golfcourse-aesthetic, even the scrub land seems orderly and twee, all the groves and crops geometrically plugged into well-watered spaces in the landscape. Rustic no longer. But at least dramatic in its expansiveness, one vista throwing open a vast blanket of wheat fields drifting for kilometre after kilometre in both directions, wind turbines lining the vanishing hills like idling blades on a combine harvester. A field of solar panel blades almost presuming to deceive the viewer that the earth is a thing that can fly. Now at Zamora, we traverse the lush Rio Duero and the bus stops for a break.
On again northwards, sun flower fields among the wheat, silos standing around like disused rocket packs. Another change, and we see trees! A veritable forest, the first in all of the 1000s of kilometres we had seen in Spain. Whole groves rushing upto the roadside, thick as polar bear fur, vivid and lush, random roadside bunches in exciting sprays like a florists mixture, one sandstone Church on a promontory looking down proudly over these Spanish rarities as if to say "look at our trees!".
Next the land dropped away below the road and became wet, the mango orange sun slipping low towards the shattered jawline of peaks, cornfields looking like stubble upon a now grass inhabited landscape. The sun plunged lower and the hills sulked a misty blue, a final splash and it was gone and Waseem broke his fast with a twenty pence muffin soaked in orange juice (our discovery!) and a sandwich he bought in Cacares when we departed. Up ahead in the falling light, the dark lilac arms of the Cordillera Cantabrica pulled the coach up and over into Oviedo, the dark tugging at our eyelids and at my pen, its handsome heights soon shrouded from attention, my last sight the altitude throwing yellow vegetation and scrub back into view, something normal at sea level in Extramadura.
Sso here ends my geographical description of an eight hour bus ride up most of the length of Spain's western half. Make of it what you will, but what was clear was that as the bus advanced the landscape's wealth increased in terms of greeness and growth and modern construction, familarity (in an englishman's eyes) and order increased and by inference fun decreased too. Extramadura seemed to be more rustic than I had ever imagined a european countryside to be, idealistically rural, unassuming and with a restrained ambition. I was sad to have left there. Extramadura was the most beautiful landscape I had seen in all of Spain, but how would Asturia (like Austria!) and its famous Picos de Europa mountain country compare? Stay tuned...

Pigs, kissing friends and sword fights in castles: childhood in Trujillo

It is difficult to imagine the charmed life of a not unhappy chiled growing up in the exquisite little town of Trujillo in Extramadura, Spain. And whether it involves cutting the pigs throat with your bare hands, feeling and smelling its blood, or fighting with antique swords in palaces not yet visited by thieves or archeologists, a Trujillo upbringing would surely vibrate with exhilaration and wonder.
Just a small glimpse at the golden nugget of the memory of our friend, Luis, yielded many stoires, and as we walked and talked our way around this huge village, basking on a granite rock, he talked about his life here, pigs, girls and trespassing being some major highlights.
Every year, the family kill a pig, an event central to their meat-loving life. Hilariously, their early morning post-kill coffee was interrupted twice one year by the presumed dead porker making a red bannered resurrection dash. Another year, the pig leapt off the barbecue, only to sprint around in a flaming halo before the decisive blow being belatedly applied. Perhaps they are better here at eating pig than at killing it! Poor Waseem, unable to eat the neck-less, and so ‘Haram’ meat, was the centre of much genuine but unquenchable curiosity at meal times, almost in opting out of this large “chunk” of their culture in this way he became curisouly alien and invisible to any inquiry. And what with temperance at the dinner table being decisively out of vogue, we were both the source of great mirth and head shaking bewilderment.
But back to the children, on the walk we headed in along climb to the top of this (children's) playground of civilization, on the way up we came to the Alberca, a pool of spring water cupped in a 30 metre deep spiral staircase of stone. Luis would often plunge off its sides, daring friends even strapping a table to a nearby turret and leaping off from a great height to watery safety. A worn down trough was for the arab women to wash and socialize, and nearby were places where Luis would bring girls, or “kissing friends” as he called them, to little centuries old romantic locations.
He and his friends would no doubt have poked fun and played around the various statues and historic erections, the impressively macho bust of Francisco de Orellano (1511-1545), his impassive glowering face a veritable font of ape and ridicule, one of many structural playthings at a young persons luxury. Discover of the Amazon and townsman, along with Pizzaro, slayer of half of south and central America, warrior role models are in good supply here fof the youth.
And what would an impressionable soul make of the whirlwind season of larger than life fesitvals? In Easter, men in KKK-style white pointy hats promenade around with sculptures describing the stations of the cross, and then on the 5th of September, a giant Virgin Mary (Trujillo’s Victoria) is carried on a giant wooden polished brass cradle, complete with candlebras, down from its castle fortress to the central square by a society of carriers, the noise and colour heightened as families dance to celtic sounding reels in traditional dress, boys with long white shirts and red neckerchiefs, black waistcoats and close fitting caps, the girls in decorated dark skirts, plumped out with underskirts. On Mayday, they outdo us by partying like there is no tomorrow at a Monty pythonesque titled “Fanfare of the Cheese”, celebrating not just the local specialities but also several special bullfights. In one local cheese, the purple heart of the thistle weed is poured into the fermentor to make a special flavour, its spikes also the bane of the unwary youth playing around the scrub that line the castles ramparts. Here, cacti grow, great strap like pads of thorny green in overgrown reveries of succulence, their fruit reddening on the branch free to pick. Dopily, Waseem having taken one down to inspect, I tried to wipe off the ultra fine hairs with fingers, only succedding in inflicting an irritation all over our hands. Luis’s mother had once taken tweezers to his tongue. Another day, we explored the other major stinging thing hereabouts, turning over a large rock and discovering a large yellow scorpion having a siesta.
There was other free fruit, lemon orange and pomegranate drooping from heavily laden trees within a climb’s grasp, atop odd ramparts or leaning off walled gardens. And if you had real cheek, you threw your towel over the glass atop the walls of the expensive houses and, while the owner was away, enjoyed his fruit trees, manicured lawns and the cool water in the swimming pools. But not all of nature is up for grabs, some passing nuns a reminder of the three nunneries Luis mentioned were in the town (down from 10) one of which is closed now but used to have an outdoor toilet which wreaked of pee!
The town is thick with little nooks, the narrow streets acting as corridors to transport knowing youth to unknown destinations away from the adult world and to places to play freely beyond the inward looking gaze of the closeknit community. Come here, I would recommend it, and bring some children!


I managed 3 days. By the 3rd, my legs had become very heavy and my inertia was doubling up, my siesta now 3 long hours of complete absence. Falling alseep at night, my body horizontal and sleep once more my best friend, an image popped into my mind of a sun straddling a horizon line, in balance between above and below, and it seemed to me that it was representing something I was feeling. The urges in my body had mellowed, my desires had abated and I had rapidly lost a lot of those irritating impulses of "hunger" and "thirst". At 9pm, 20 minutres before we "broke", I had on each evening felt disinterested in the meal, and though we did gorge ourselves a lot in the 4 hour time window before bed, to the point of nausea in my case, this was more out of anxiety than anything else and a desire to stand up well to the next day and the 36 37Celsius heat.
So for 20 hours each day we had no drink or food, and also didnt use toothpaste or admit any flavourings to our mouth, as is correct muslim pratice. We had also shaved our arm pits and groin, as is also generally customary for a muslim. But by the 4th day, I became reluctant to continue, mainly because I am not a muslim and because the heat and an exhasuting one hour 5 a side football match sweated out an armful of body fluid and I had experienced what I ahd set out to.
It was really surprisingly easy, and if I was a believer it would have been no real challenge, but for comfort sake and also as I am trying to lose a little weight (ironically, though your stomach is shrunk by the fast, I was overindulging in the feast) I have since been mainly as normal, though I have done a couple of days of fast since. Try it, I think you will learn something from it, and as it is practiced between sunrise and sunfall, my memory of it will always be of that vision I had of the drowsy sun, balanced on the horizon line poised to set.

Trujillo and the four poster beds

We arrived at 1145 at a nondescript bus station on the edge of the Little town called Trujillo. All around in the clear night vast open fields had been discovered through the pall of the evening, ranging far and wide and free, the abrupt flat-handed check of the stone walled streets jolting us awake. Our 4 day rolling transit was at an end. And with no preconceptions, the sense of exoticness intensified the feeling of triumph, our arrival made regal as we were whisked onto the historic cobbles of the central square by a kind girl and her father in their large 4 door car after we had asked them the way.
In the oval square, packed out with palaces and memorials to time, my doubts over coming were left sprinkled over the vast uninvisionable landscape behind us, (2022 kilometres to be precise, according to Google Map Routefinder) and a soujourn of homecooking and domestic delight was spread accross our itinerary like a delicious picnic. So near to a comfortable bed and security, and the clock ominously hovering at 5 to midnight, Luis wasn’t answering his phone and so Waseem called a friend in England who began relaying instructions to find his home as we marched around, a bit like in Challenge Aneka, if you remember this. Would we sleep on the street again?
Trujillo turned out to be a maze of homogenous terraces of squasehed together plastered cottages, shuttered and huddling in their ancient but secretive glories, the path ahead snuffed out at every turn by sense-boggling blind bends. When we were on what we thought was the right road, trundling with our heavy bags like sleep walkers, we were on the look out for the curiously described “house under the bell with the nest on it” which was in fact nowhere to be seen, and just as it looked like we would be sleeping on the street (we were not on the right road!) we made contact with Luis and he guided us “home” to bed. A hefty meal later, we lifted ourselves onto a four poster bed each and among deliciously crisp sheets imitated rocks plunging inexorably into a deep sleep. Staying at Luis’s parents was like being dipped into a domestic bliss of the sort I had almost forgotten about.
When we got up though, it was the dawn of ramdam and we would have to obstain from many delights until nightfall. Would we manage? Would we become deranged, and wander in the brilliant sun and hallucinate pastries, or gorge ourselves from the larder? Stay tuned until the next exciting installment!

Friday, August 28, 2009

Luxembourg to....

It was much too tempting, free food and accommodation, far away in deep dark Spain, and then afterwards a fully paid for room and meals at hotels with a touring music group, I couldn't go home. I also had around a hundred pounds of what i had budgeted to spend, so it was a challenge to stay cheap for a further 3 and a half out came the thumb and after taking the public transport (and not paying!) we got a lift southwards with Hakm, an Algerian Frenchman. France blew by in a wondrous blur. Hakm dropping us off at a petrol station, only for Eric and Ile a half hour later to whisk us a further 500 kilometres to just north of Lyon by 11pm. An indulgent one hour break in the service station, and "xxxxx" (can't remember at the moment), another French Algerian man, a chauffeur for Glasgow rangers footballer amongst other people, took us as far as Montpellier, a further 400 kilometres! Out we jumped, and had our photo taken with him, and as we had our standup wash in the toilets, Waseem recounted how he had begun to fall asleep at the wheel, Waseem asking him, with English restraint, "are you all right?" and we got there in the end. I had slept through the drama.
Pascale then took us on to the Spanish border, another large drive, he was a chemical salesman and his car smelt like it. Again I plunged into sleep, Waseem informing me again afterwards that he had started to sleep at the wheel and that he had asked him to pull over. Dangerous stuff, hitchhiking overnight. I slept right through it again, but I had been making good french conversation for quite a few hours of that night, and so probably needed to rest my English language shy mind. Smelly and tired, we were at a toll station and Spain was within walking distance, and so we slept in a field by the motorway. UP we got and, not soon after, we were into Spain with Victor and Florence doing a booze drive. The hills by the coast are rounded and well coiffed, like broccoli heads or poodle perms, the car rolling on by hay bales round like wheels. These lovely green hills, i noted from a road sign, were shielding our view from the white-toothed glare of Cadaques, its square and brilliantly white houses clustered around a bay immortalised by the surrealist painter, Salvidor Dali.
They dropped us off at a little town, where they had come to buy some eau du vie and some cheap San Miguel. Most of the people here were french, and we found it difficult to get a lift and walked out of town in 37Celsius and jumped over a fence to get to a petrol station on the motorway. Here it was difficult too, either the heat or the national temperament making people less communicative and helpful. But a couple of hippies, Tulla (listen to her at myspace, under the name of Sardana, she has appeared at Glastonbury!) and Carlos picked us up and dropped us off at a toll station, where we got a lift within 5 minutes by Sergio in a BMW convertible. Unfortunately when he dropped us off at Tarragona, just 100 kilometres south, he left us on the side of the motorway and so we marched off along the side of it in the hope of finding a petrol station. Petrol stations are better for hitchhiking as you are able to talk to people to ask them for a lift, and they also have more time to think about your suggestion. However, we just encountered a toll station, where unfortunately we were asked to move on. 4 or 5 kilometres later, after following the motorway westwards towards Llieda on the Madrid road, it was getting late and so we decided to sleep at a parking place by, or on in Waseem´s case, some chunky furniture. Before sun fall we stole some grapes form the vineyards and ate almonds off a tree, tasting richly of marzipan!
5 kilometres from a service station, we started off to hike there along the motorway, with the fanfare of the occasional horn honk to keep us to good speed and soon after a passing RAC van who escorted us along the hard shoulder with its flashing lights. Once more, a Spanish service station and we were met with the relatively terse and unfriendly responses of those we questioned about lifts, but Waseem with another of his good ideas went over to ask some people getting out of a large coach and they gladly agreed to take us as far as Madrid, 5 hours away! They were all Christians from a church in the Lebanon, and bade us Inhsala as we jumped aboard. I was mute on the voyage, as the music blared and Waseem entertained two small girls with the hand trick (where it looks as though your finger has been chopped off) and played games with them and chatted to the very friendly Wasim. Pssshhh, the doors opened and we stepped down (onto the side of the motroway again!) and with a feeling of elation jogged down the motorway verge, across a bridge over a few barriers and to a bus stop where Ily, the Lebanese minister, told us there would be a bus stop to the centre.
A hostel stay later, we were knackered, the trip having taken much longer than anticipated, we tried to hitchhike at the outskirts and dramatically failed, wandering this way and that to either hail down cars or search for buses to take us to better positions, with 16 kilograms on our back in the 37C heat until at 7pm, we gave up after a good 5 hours of trying. And again, in weakness, caught a bus, for a whopping 24 pounds.
In the sinking sun we drove in the express coach though the country around Madrid, where sad tress melted on a golden landscape, undulating and swirled like a caramel cream ice cream. We floated on in our clean, sofa style seats, the sun catching stubble int he fields and lighting them up brilliant yellow, soil a chocolaty brown, and the residual hum of the sunshine colouring purple 50 to 100 kilometres away. this was a vast plain, and on our boomerang trajectory away from the city, a last view of Madrid was sighted, row upon row of houses lit with sharp lights gazing south warily towards Arabian Africa. At least 20 peaks seem at the rim all around the plain, then the coach climbs a fly over, and this number multiplies to 200 then 500 discernible peals, this is a dramatic gathering of landmass! The trees mark the exotic terrain, rotund ones mixed with pines and with anorexic conifers. By the road, a 20 foot high black bull, a 19th century advertising hoarding for "Osborne" wine, retained across Spain for its symbolic depiction of Spain's national character, behind the sky is hot and glowering, as if removed from a fire, in the west it hangs like a piece of unquenched metal dented along its rim in irregular serrations like a scimitar blade by the long stretch of the hill line. Soon we would be in Trujillo, after a whopping 4 days of travelling, and we were in good need of real food and regular washing. But the next day, the 22nd of august, marked the beginning of Ramadan and a new challenge, to accompany Waseem on his fast. Wish us luck!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Budapest, my last night: a guy who hitchhikes with ships, a lost sleeping bag and a lady called Maria...

The following I am writing before I forget, it is out of order like a few of the most recent entries.

And a day in the hot hot sun, walking with my heavy bag (with the 5 or 6 books i had bought or had been given while travelling), meeting a new acquaintance Philip (a hitchhiker from Germany who was trying to flag down enormous freight boats to take him down river to the sea) for a photography exhibition at the extravagantly landscaped museum complex and sculpture park, left me abroad in the city and minus my sleeping bag. I had planned to sleep on the hill above the Gellert hotel, where there is a rocky park and a big statue of a lady, lit at night, holding aloft a wreath, but now my plans had changed. The 90 minute walk down to the museum I retraced and then back again, but for nothing other than seeing the city, which was ideal as I saw a lot. Along the way, somewhere near to the brilliant building that is the opera house, I met a homeless lady. She asked me for some money, but not having any, I gave her a bag of plums which she impishly received, her sly charm melding happily into a quite gracious and genuine smile.
"Thankyou, thankyou,"she said, "My name is Maria, like Virgin!"
She pointed over to a nearby church, where there was a picture of the virgin Mary. I gave her my name.
"Ahh, Thomas More!" she said, "God bless you Thomas More."
She had ways of trying to curry my favour, mainly humour edged doe-eye looks, but I resisted them. As I say I didn't have any money, and as much as I liked her I didn't want to condone her good humoured tactics. So we bid each other good bye. I felt quite sad not to have given her more. She was old and had all her possessions it seemed in a little trolley that she pushed around, and she was surprisingly resilient and good natured for someone who could be forgiven for being bitter and hardened. So I felt sorry for her.
But then I had an idea. I still had half a kilogram of Turkish delight that I had bought in the Balkans. I stopped and with much rummaging plucked it out of my bag. She hadn't ambled very far by then, so I jogged after her and gave her the gift.
"Thomas More!" she said, "Thankyou, God bless you, Thomas More, Ahh, thank you!" She said this while showering me with kisses. She was visibly moved and we talked for a short while, about her husband and son (she pointed upwards to tell me where they were) and about her dislike and distrust of gypsies. Then she wanted top give me something in return.
"A souvenir...let me see"
She wanted to give me a ´souvenir´, so she capered around her trolley and shaping herself uneasily, like Freddie Frinton´s drunk, extracted a packet of peanuts. The packet was already opened and her hands looked very dirty, but I accepted it (later to be put into a bin) and we said good bye to each other. I felt a lot of affinity for her, the way she used charm and humour when she was struggling, something I have found myself doing too.
So I carried on walking. It was good to see this area of eastern Budapest as here there are lots of nice cafes and book shops, statues and little parks in the middle of the streets. And it now being 1am I decided to stay awake in a bar and bought a cup of coffee and started to write all this down.
At 530 the bar shut, so it was a perfect time to be setting off, being able to get out to my hitchhiking position at the motorway petrol station early, walking across the river and to the main road leading west which soon became a motorway. Here I got my first lift and was off to Berlin.

Berlin and on to Koblenz

In Berlin I stayed with my friend Dave and his girlfriend, Laura. The first few days I just slept during the day as getting there had been an enormous hitchhike, 24 hours in fact, to make the 1200 kilometres as the crow flies (via Munich).
Everything was going well uptil the outskirts of Berlin, 2 VW camper vans and 3 cars taking me between 100 kilometres and 400 kilometres apiece, although I did spend about 4 hours in Munich, stuck in thew centre and by the time I reached the motorway it took a lot of thumbwagging in the stifling sun for Jurgen to take pity on me and whisk me off up the autobahn. But at Berlin things slowed up a lot and form 50 kilometres away it took me a further 7 hours to reach Dave's house in the centre. One ride took me in towards Berlin and then away again, heading out towards Dresden down another arm of the capital´s motorway network, there being no service stations for the Polish family to drop me at. The one they did find was only servicing southbound traffic, so I then had to backtrack 3 kilometres to the northbound one and make a dash across the autobahn too! I then got a lift from a lorry driver who took me to the north edge of the city (Dave lived in the south) and then I took the metro to what I thought was Dave's and it turned out that there were two streets of the same name in Berlin, so I got the metro again and by 830am was there at Dave's. Nathalie, my friend from Amsterdam who had come to meet me here too had already arrived int he city and was staying at Dave's, I had forgotten that I had given her his number! So it was funny to see her when the door opened, saying "'ello!" in a broad french accent, Nathalie and Dave having never met each other until then. That night we went clubbing, after a long and abortive stroll through the city in search of a squat party, which Berlin has many of. Oliver, who Nathalie had moved out to stay with through couchsurfing rescued us from the middle of we did not know where and in his car took us to a cult Berlin venue, the Kaffe Burger bar, for the Russe Disco an extremely perky Russian themed mix of music and an uninhibited dance floor clientele. In keeping with the cities creative flavour, the disco is run by an author, but I was alive to none of this and by the end of the evening when we left at 5am, I was a shadow. This was a third night without sleep. I really need to learn to say no.
The following night was a little less hectic, but not much so, Dave and Laura taking me out to see more of the groovy nightlife. First up, a rooftop bar on the top of a multistory car park, the upper deck of which in summer is covered with sand and decking so people can shake of their shoes and enjoy a drink in a deck chair. IT was good and relaxing, and from here you could see laser beams playing across the tall buildings on the skyline. In winter, it is just filled with cars. From here, Laura went home as she had a lot of work on, and Dave and I went to the rather wonderful Doctor Pong, two rooms, one with a bar and another with a table tennis table. Simple, but not as simple as the decor, which didn't exist, the grey space around the table lined with basic chairs and here and there stray wires poked from the ceiling. To get a beer, you asked a really friendly girl behind a hatch for a lager from a kitchen-style fridge, and then paid a deposit of 5 euros for a raggedy racket and our game began. Everyone was walking around the table, gently knocking the ball back to the other side, and when someone made a mistake they would drop out. At some times around 30 people would be crushed around the table at the outset, but by the end when 6 or 7 people remained, the players began to play their shots. Dave was really good and managed to get to the last 3 , but I was pretty rubbish and was quite happy to be a part of the communal atmosphere for a brief few shots.
To round off the evening, Dave took me on to a socialist bar near Dave's flat, called Cafe Morgenrot, where we shared a beer and Dave told me how if you came for the all you can eat Brunch, which is a common activity in Berlin, you are asked to pay (between 4 and 8 euros) what you can afford.
A lie in and then Dave treats me to a ticket for the Hertha Berlin football match at the Olympic stadium. The match is rather dull, but the stadium was worth seeing, several statues around the stadium of very strong and serious young men with extremely large and obvious genitalia standing by square horses and the large rectangular columns and vast fascist architecture of the stadium provide a dramatic setting for sporting events in the present day and serve the city well.
Another day I took the tour and there were also several days of much needed flopping in there too too, before having to say goodbye to Dave and Laura, who had been very kind and good company, and Waseem and I then decided, as we were to be staying at Ali´s house, a UCLan friends, in Koblenz that night we took the regional train offer where by you get two tickets for the price of one if you take the slow regional trains. 11 hours later we arrived at Koblenz, en route running out of the station at Magdeburg to see the enormous Hundertwasser (artist) designed apartment block, in a fantastical sweet shop and organic "Castle" style, its walls painted bright pink! This was one good idea Waseem had of many, I would probably just have sat in the station and people watched, but the half hour was used well.
By 840pm, we were at Koblenz, the historic town built at the confluence of two great German rivers, the Rhine and Mosel, where Alis brother Atilla picked us up and delivered us to Ali's parent's Italian restaurant, where we ate, and their guest house, where we slept. The evening was great, it was good to see Ali again, if briefly, and Ali's father kept my beer glass topped up throughout and the food was delicious. Otto at the end of the bar, a regular, kept sending peach scnhapps over to me, and while I tried to find places to stay and means of getting there on the Internet, waseem managed not to lose at dice and Ali went off to pray.
And so the next day Ali and his dad dropped us off in Koblenz and here, deciding on the novel idea of trying to walk to Luxembourg, set off to buy a sleeping bag and some supplies for the journey.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Budapest - dossing and dolloping and the calm before the storm

When I first arrived at Budapest, stepping from the metro into Deak Ter, a square close in to the centre on the Pest side of the river, men and women stood standing silently, in ones, very much alone like statues. They were waiting for someone, someone special, romantic ones presumably as they all looked a little excitably tense. I, the newly arrived hobo, slightly harassed and needing a wash slumped down on the steps of the church to wait for Zoltan, my host for my first 4 days in the city, sitting as opposed to eagerly standing.
And so he came, in between these twitching figures and plucked me from their midst to his little flat in a practically silent early 20th complex, pseudo-art deco in design. With a trim goatee, his narrow face resembled in part the Turkish roots he had. Staying too was Damian, another stray, whom Zoltan had found dropping his water bottle from his touring bike and, serendipity throwing its dice into the equation, he suggested he stayed here too. He had travelled a similar distance, but not on the back of other peoples lifts but on his own pedal power!
Together the two of us saw the Memento Park the next day, a curious collection of rather stridently physically enhanced soviet statues, long removed from their city homesteads to stud way out at the edge of the city. One had both fists clenched, his eyes blank but his face physically committed in nerve and sinew, raw passion running around every feature, and his 20 foot high frame was running down towards the awed visitor in a fit of communist fervour. Their too a museum to the "Young Pests", Budapests famous youth who stood upto the socialist regime in 1956 and were killed off in their thousands in their attempt to lay siege to the radio, and were nevertheless an inspiration to resistance across the soviet controlled east. A comical KGB videotape for training recruits in how to track, interview suspects or make new recruits, accompanied by incidental jazz music and some hammy acting, added a rather lighthearted, and so therefore a sinister, complement to the history. Well worth seeing if you go.
Another day, and I doze, stretch, lie, eat, drink, eat and finally after a wander outside, come back again for an early night. Am tired. Another day and I take a lift with zoltan out to the east where he drops me at a thermal bath, and relying on its flotation properties, i dangle my whole body there in its mineral rich waters and reconnect my mind with my body again and once again, a day of rest and I hitchhike home, really easy with just 3 lifts.
In one lift, with Ferenc, we were at crosspurposes in our conversation. Sitting there, I was observing out of the corner of my eye women standing by the side of the road, one every kilometre or so, and women they all of them were! Hmmm, i thought. Meanwhile, he was mentioning the speed cameras and that he was having to travel slowly at certain points. I, my mind wondering to the site of boobies at 90km/hour, point to the side of the road and go "sex?". Ferenc, it appears, hasn't heard me, but continuing on his story he writes on the dashbaord the numbers 60000. Now this is in florints, which is 200 pounds sterling, a lot of money. And in his words... "Hot Money!".
Eh? Yup, his face is lit up in quite exquisite expression; does he mean that's what one must pay for sex? Well, as it turns out this was for a road fine, but as i am sure you will appreciate, this is no less extraordinary by english standards anyhow and it certainly foxed me, his choice of "hot" as an adjective with his look of strained enthusiasm. So watch your speed in Hungary, but dont drive too slow or you will be stopped for curbcrawling. Maintain a balance.
IT was the next day that I went to Budapests favourite feature, the bath house. The most beautiful of these, the name escapes me, is a vast yellow and white building, a cross between a hotal and a mansion, upon entering and oaying you enter a reassuringly luxurious changing block with wodden changing rooms, their doors like cupboards, and some rather severe looking attendants in all white uniforms. A quick change and a prompt exposure of glistening white flesh, I escorted myself through to the bathing area and upon entering found myself in a maze of quite decadent proportions. To describe it, it can only be described as like a dream, room after room of nipple-tweaklingly hot baths, head-noddingly hot saunas and throat-throttling cold plunge pools opening up to you one after the other, and when you get so far in it is hard to remember where you are as the rooms all seem to look the same. Watch Last Year in Marienbad and you will see the fully clothed version of this, except in a luxury hotel and not a bath house and in these rooms each one packed with beautiful and bizzarre bodies, walking sitting or reclining and not stiff society people in black tie and evening dresses. To the artist, or the downright pervert, this was heaven and I, being an artist of course, had a good look/ Again, I let my body relax and let time run its course, and so it did and quickly too, and after nearly 4 hours of skinwrinkling fun I wandered over the river to the east side, to Pest, where Dodo was awaiting me with a tent for the night. As it turned out he was late home, so it was not practical to set up the tent, so i had the floor in his room, and before bed chatting with the 4 other guests and drinking beer,and then he and two spanish girls and I went for a walk to see Pest from a nearby hilltop. Lovely! So to bed and to dream. The next day again was a day of chillaxing, a little nap in his garden by an ant infested lizard, some exercises, a wander to the supermarket and then in the evening some vegetables, lots of them in fact, and then after a fiery thunderstorm and meeting Dodos lovely partner Andrea, to bed again. Another simple day, and much needed. Especially as for the next 3 nights i wound have no sleep at all!

Monday, August 10, 2009

Berlin - a tour

So we rolled up, Waseem, my new travelling companion freshly arrived from moist Preston, and your good author, at the place to meet the tour guideTheo, an Australian, part-guide, part-artist, our "Voice" for the day. And his tour was terrific and it is related to you, dear reader, for your enjoyment, below.
We began at Kastaneinalle, a trendy and bohemian quarter of the Mitte central region. He showed us a 17th century stable block in among the 4 story maze of streets, used by none other than King Friedrich. "Old Fritz", as he was known, was a liberal regent, a talented flute player, friend of Voltaire and an excellent ruler and town planner by all accounts. Which causes shock when the building is covered in graffiti and sandwiched in a rather unruly way behind a grubby wall. Berlin, as apparently is its wont, has let this building "go" but as its metier has passed it on to artists to make a go of it. Further evidence of creative recycling is seen at the Tachalus centre, a Jewish department store that was left vacant and squatters seized control of its whopping 5 stories and 200 rooms, making way for a sculpture studio, painters workshop, cinema, drama studio, bar and night club. Leading us on, we pass briefly through one of the notorious courtyards, displaying enigmatic and humorous graffiti, my favourite a bearded lady where the beard is made of real dandelions!
Berlin, it seems, is creative and adaptive not just to change but also catastrophe. The huge rubble heap left by world war II created an unprecedented gap in the urban landscape, 80% of structures being levelled. Even before this, the Nazi machine itself was manhandling the city, Hitler had uprooted the city grass, torched the Reichstag and constructed some rather offensive architecture, the Aviation Ministry an exuberantly cruel-looking block of impervious stone.
As Hitler disposed of himself, below the spot where we later sat in a car park and felt, in my case, rather sick, the allies were 50 km away and advancing in on foot, and the city they discovered was remarkably devastated. The men being dead in their millions, the Trummer Frau (or Rubble Women) set to work, and in 10 days trams and buses were able to pass across the whole diameter of the city. Later, the excess rubble was heaped to form a great hill beside the city, apparently now bought by the film director David Lynch, another odd connection in a bold and interesting town.
And the tour passed on, with great poignancies, such as the empty book shelves to remind one of the burning of 20000 books beside the Unter der Lindel, Berlins major avenue. Alongside, the quote: "Where they burn books they will also burn people.". A story of wonder, a family of east germans escaping the enclosure by building their own hot air balloon and making it away, Sound of Music style, was related to us at Checkpoint Charlie, at the point where the Berlin wall once stood. This was one exception in a great dark age of creativity, and as we strolled into the west, to eat at "Snackpoint Charlie', I noticed a shock to my back and feeling it, liquid was flowing there. I had been shot by the man on the checkpoint! But not with a rifle but with a water pistol. This was perhaps the cultural low point of the tour, but also a welcome dose of irony to the heavy subject matter!
The Jewish war dead memorial was brilliant, a strangely relaxing and enjoyable park of grey concrete blocks in a vast gridwork, the interlayed spaces making paths along which a single human can walk. As you penetrate the centre of it, people jump out from behind corners, children whimper that they have become lost, and several of the 2000 blocks tower above you at wonky angles, the urban compass spun in circles as you have entered a bizarre piece of contemporary sculpture (on a piece of real estate large enough to house an entire ministry). The blocks are grey, a nothing-grey that is an almost palpably wasted colour that permits only a superimposition of meaning over the top of it, it itself having no grain, depth or surface with which to grapple or sense-make. A sinister colour, but most of all the scale calls to mind the immensity of its title, the "Memorial to the Jewish War Dead", and its many heavy stone blocks suggest the throngs of war dead, their 3D shape a precise mirror of the actuality of individual grave ditches.
And so a chapter in Berlin's history is made sense through the medium of the city and its structure. Further examples of this amalgamation are seen in the many rather grim, half derelict buldings that are now graffitied and contain squatters. According to Theo, Berlin is a poor city economically.
One chapter of the City Life is seen in Potsdamer Platz, where in the 1920s Berlin was swinging with cabaret and people such as Marlene Dietrich and Fritz Lang appeared at film premiers. Then Berlin was known as the "Cocaine Capital" of europe, but now Potsdamer Platz is a pristine monument to modern architecture and clean skyscraping ingenuity, Daniel Baremboim at one point leading a battalion of construction cranes in a dance, via walky talky, to the music of the Berlin philharmonic, known as the Ballet of the Cranes. Indeed, at one point Berlin lay claim to a third of the worlds construction cranes! Similar stories of reinvention can be found elsewhere, the excellent British designed dome of the Reichstag poised above the new "transparent" legislature in the government building below, replacing the dome razed at the end of the war. Its glass design enables you to actually look down at the politicians below, its beautiful apex is open tot he elements where exhausted at the end of 5 hours on the tour we lay looking up at the sky, trying to tempt a butterfly to land on my hand for Waseem to photograph.
And at no point did you feel buzzed or bustled by busy city life. Instead, you had the feeling of taking a stroll in a great urban park and architectural garden, indeed below the Brandenburg gate trees run for several kilometres in parkland, the fabulously golden goddess victory on a giant column raising civilisation above nature, but only just. Berlin means 'swamp", and within just 30 minutes of the centre, lakes and woodland abound among the many digited prongs of the suburban spread. And like these green lungs, the visitor must certainly take a deep breath, or at least a well chosen and reasonably lengthy walking tour, to try and comprehend the true extent to which this city might be appreciated.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The author is on holiday

Ironically, I am on holiday. I have been lying low, so apologies if you havent been able to hear from me recently, i have been in the compost heap of rejuvenation. Tomorrow I hitchhike to berlin, fingers crossed... it is 740 kilometres, so wish me luck. I hope you are all well. Am missing home actually, the trip has gone full circle in that sense. I am also a little bored, so am trrying to reinvent the experience a little, but just mainly drifting along and things will find themselves again i feel. Ciao for now, tom.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Belgrade day 2

Morning comes to visit me in my slumber and I grunt at it for a while, then reluctantly give in to it and get up. I walk to the market, it saying in my tourist book that you should "go to the market and speak to the people there" and as I am also interested in buying some fruit I take my city map and go for a wander. En route, I am reassured to find myself lost a little, it really feels comforting for me, I don1t know why! Perhaps it is an excuse to ask for directions and strike up a conversation, or maybe because it forebodes adventure. Anyhow, I get both. First the asking for directions, and a young couple Ivan and Dusan are going in that direction so walk with me, they are very friendly and it put me straight by some fruit stalls. SO I wander in, and spying a rather perfect looking onion (I have decided to cook for myself now I am in a hostel!)I approach the old lady behind the stall and ask her how much for it. She looks a bit like Mother Theresa and her waving away of my attempt to pay is one of polite and kind saintliness. So I grab a chili and a clove of garlic, and then inquire as to whether she will take money for them. She begrudgingly accepts 15 pence worth of Dinars, but perhaps to make things fair on her side, she closes the deal by giving me two tomatoes. Well, I have been learning that morning the extra special words of VERY good and thankyou VERY MUCH, so I fish into my own handwritten phrase book and with quite a few "just a minute" eyebrow gestures to keep her attention, I extract jacko dobro and hvala mnugo to in some way "pay", or at least express my gratitude. After all, as a lover of most comestibles, this sort of sales tactic was like a red rag to a bull, so off I go to the next stalls, the nectarines sitting plump and looking at me. So for 2o pence I acquire 6 nectarnines, and then I see some blackberries, and a large punnet of very fat blackberries are mine for 20 pence. Thinking I might have actually payed for something on this charitable continent, I decide to buy something luxurious, Turkish Delight. It says 140 dinars (47 pence) on the box, so I ask for this amount (sto centri deset) of dinars worth, and what comes back but a kilogram of turkish delight! I give up, each time I try to, I fail to spend what things seem worth. So I rest on the "bar" of this stall, and try the guidebooks tip of chatting to the people there. The first guy I speak to, a veteran fellow with brown skin and not many teeth straight away gives me a sausage. Not outdone, i offer him some turkish delight, which he declines, but we chat a little with mime and a few brief words and it is very nice and I am grateful for the sausage (even if he will take nothing for it!). And then i chat to a guy called Milos, who is drinking a beer. I inquire the cost, quite innocently, and he then buys me not one but 2 beers! Great, the sunshine begins to look even lovelier. He will not take turkish delight either, on account of his heart, and slightly hilariously ina black sort of way, I am thwarted from offerring soem to the next guy becuase of great scar down his chest indicating where he was cut open for heart surgery. No sugar for him then. But the charity doesnt wend here, as Milos is impressed by my word knowledge of serbo-bosnian-croat, and we get along pretty well and at the very zenith of chairty in my trip to the market comes with him paying for me to take a taxi ride home, at a cost of 5 pounds! Incredible. So I get back to the hostel in time to brag about my exploits to the gathered backpackers, feeling very Marco Polo and quite a superior travelling person, if I say so myself. Tonight I sleep on an island with lots of mosquitos and a towel over my face, but I will leave that for the next one. Bye for now.

Belgrade (am about a week behind)

Today I do very little, just lounge around in the youth hostel, which is appropriately called the Backpackers Lounge , as it feels a bit like being on the set of Friends, the furniture is very modern in design and open planned and people mill to and fro without any notices on the walls and it almost difficult to realise where people sleep, everything is tucked away from view. I stay out of the never ending 35 degree heat during the day, but later in the afternoon i walk over to the Hill Of Contemplation, on which sits the castle on a corner of a large bend in the Danube. People are walking and taking it easy and the air is still hot and sleepy. A bird flies down towards the river, off the side of the cliff. In line between the sun and my vantage the sun sparkles like flasbulbs in the water and behind me a pram rolls by, its sound deep and sonorous as a tram. In the distance, beyond the out and in left jab of the river, smoke rises into the sky and makes a deft wave as it breaks in the wind, and all around minor things make a happening.
I hear Slavic voices, passing behind me in ther opposite direction to the pram, their voices edged thick and thin in elegant origami, coming in and out of emphasis with the virtuosity of a caligrapher, the strokes easy, rhythmical and cordial, forming a blend like a mixture of cool water and warm apple juice.
On my way back, I meet a girl who is begging for money, the source of her monetary concern is her large belly, the baby within needing medicine. At first, I follow habit and actually not having money, I revert to my normal behaviour and discard her plea. However, on my journey, the main lesson I have learned is that you see a lot of goodness in people when you ask for things, upto this point in time I have received a lot for my "begging", in fact a princely sum. So, I go back to her (Ana) and we swap numbers and I agree to meet her the next day to give her the 15 euros she needs, and in a funny reward to me she gives me a packet of condoms. In the end, being me I leave it late and text her to meet me the next day, by which point she may well have got the money, I hope she did, but she doesnt return my call so I assume someone else helped her. The point is, though, that I learned that giving should be a matter of freeness and we should give well and without reserve, for we will also receive the same back in the end too, even though that is not the point of course.