ROMANIA#1: To the north

Hmmmm. Where were we now? Ah yes sitting on the terrace of the pub in Satu Mare (sartoo maray) opposite the station drinking beer. The twilight was lengthening attractively and the beer was cold and very nice. That’s right. It all comes back. Our minibus is waiting for us to get on board and I’m rooting around in my pack looking for something nice to eat, as relaxed and comfortable as John Howard advised us to be.

What? Chris and Marta? What about them? Marta told Jope that we should get off at Satu Mare and we did.

The train had travelled north along the border of western Romania and the country hadn’t changed much. I’d spent most of the time with my head out the window because it hadn’t got any cooler. Yes okay like a dog in the back of a ute if that helps you. This was interesting but poor country: some dilapidated houses still in use, tumbledown farm buildings, horses and pony carts instead of tractors, long arid patches, the occasional smell of piggeries and sewage, an even more occasional village but little you’d want to go to war over.

Chris and Marta? Again? What … I told you. We left them being looked after … in custody? Well yes, in custody if that makes you happy. Custody. With the people in the blue uniforms.

The pub was a bit of a dive actually, a few blokes in the bar mumbling into their beer. Mine testy hostess wasn’t interested in euros, had no interest at all in forints and once we got some lei out of the ATM hidden in the inverted commas first class waiting room at the station, indicated fairly clearly that their denominations were too big. In this rather bleak corner of Satu Mare, money spoke only a particular dialect of Romanian.

Okay. They escaped. Chris the resourceful Kiwi had secreted some number 8 wire about her person and had fashioned first a pick lock and then a flying machine which allowed her to … aaaaah, no imagination. All right then. The people in blue stamped her passport and then dumped them both on the outskirts of town which would have been a matter of metres away. Marta, to whom this had happened before, knew the drill and they hitch-hiked to Satu Mare requiring only two rides. (Maybe three. I think the second ended up in Satu but a long way from the station.) They got there an hour after we did. I can only shake my head in wonderment.

We had started this day in Eger; we had been to Debrecen; we were drinking beer at Satu Mare and we still had a two or three hour drive in the mini bus over execrable roads. Big day.

‘Mare’ means ‘high’, perhaps ‘upper’ in this context seeing we’d been through Satu Sud (yes, you got it). Baia Mare (‘high baths’) and Tarna Mare are nearby. I’d like to have done this drive in daylight because we were certainly in the Carpathians. On arrival at about 11pm we had a delicious dinner with a glass or two of palinka which I had begun to enjoy, the bed was comfortable, the weather cool and we woke to the sound of people digging spuds in a Romanian version of paradise. We’re looking at the food we ate here.

Nicolae was there at breakfast looking chipper. An engineer by training and experience, working for a time in a senior and well paid position for Ikea, he now worked as a nurse in his wife’s medical clinic (with 2000 patients) so they could live together — a very interesting man and our guide for the day. He took us everywhere.

Where are we again? Here, the red dot: separated from the Ukraine by the river Tisa and not  much else.

We bought lunch at the swish supermarket in Sighetu Marmatiei (‘siget’ to its intimates). I have an undistinguished but otherwise interesting photo of the main street which shows that in Sighetu there is a bistro called the Eldorado, a branch of Western Union and a shop that has ‘Orice produs 3 lei’, ‘All products 82.7 Australian cents’ which provides a rough idea of the exchange rate. We drove on to Săpânţa where I, at least, got a surprise — the very Merry Cemetery.

Stan Ioan Pătraş began carving these headpieces in 1935 and now there are more than 800 of them. As well as their good humour one of their distinctive features is their honesty. An 18 year old boy loved his car too much and was killed driving it. Despite her angelic nature, one woman had two gentlemen friends. And one rather grisly one talks about how the ‘bastard Hungarians’ shot the subject in the back and decapitated his friend while they were out hunting. (In nearby Harghita province more than 80 percent of the population describe themselves as Hungarian.)

Taken together they provide a strikingly honest as well as deeply affectionate portrait of a community. The farewell on Stan’s own oak marker is plangent.

Since I was a little boy/ I was known as Stan Ioan Pătraş/ Listen to me, fellows
/ There are no lies in what I am going to say/ All along my life
 I meant no harm to anyone/ But did good as much as I could
/ To anyone who asked/ Oh, my poor World
/ Because it was hard living in it.

This area is famous for its old wooden churches, in one case so grand I couldn’t get back far enough on site to get the tower (sans bell, too heavy for timber construction) into the frame. But here’s Luz recording its altar decoration.

The general cladding principle went like this. (Double click for a proper look. Beautiful craftsmanship producing fluid forms. They don’t seem to mind cracks in the timber.) One result, the convent at Barsana, is a Romanian treasure.

There’s a lot here, but I must tell you briefly about Sighisoara (siggishawra) well south of the red dot in the screen shot above and pretty close to the centre of Romania. It is famous among other things as the birthplace of the gentleman looking over Marta’s shoulder, Vlad Tepes, a member of the House of Drăculești, also known by his patronymic, Dracula. ‘Tepes’ means ‘the impaler’. If you have an interest in this particular process I direct you to Ivo Andrić’s remarkable book The Bridge on the Drina where you can get as much detail as you’d like and possibly a little more. Later I want to write something about gypsies and I note in passing that Andrić chose a gypsy to do the impaling because that way the wicked Ottoman pasha responsible for building the bridge could be sure of the lingering quality of his victim’s death. Said victim, innocent of course but a minor character, was still breathing after 24 hours. But the really dirty work had to done by a gypsy.

Sighisoara is a fortified village built on one of the rocky outcrops so beloved of the builders of medieval fortifications. It is colourful and picturesque. Here, for example, is its clocktower.

And the view from our window to the real town below.

We liked the real town. Real towns always have something to offer. We found the Orthodox basilica and, more or less on our own, attended an Orthodox version of evensong.  The ‘graffiti’ on the concrete levee says, in Romanian of course: ‘Life is a necessary condition to exist, but insufficient to be. Do your duty and you will know (perhaps ‘discover’) who you are.’

Myrna turned 60 that day and we had a fine celebration under one of the roofs in the picture above, a chocolate cake produced by Marta drenched in liqueur, and happy birthday sung in five languages: English, Polish, Dutch, Indonesian and Mexican Spanish. Then Myrna, who had spent a lot of time on this trip trying to remember all the words to Robert Frost’s ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ and ‘Ragamuffin Man’ (lyrics and music by Peter Callander and Mitch Murray and performed so admirably by Manfred Mann. Don’t ask. Ha ho. If you must know we heard it in the foyer of our hotel in Budapest, and it’s a Myrna kind of song: ‘As you rise in the mornin’ rain/  Take a look down that road again/  Does the thought ever grab your mind/ For the life that you’ve left behind?/ Hey Mister etc.’), yes back to where we were, Myrna, sitting within a metre or two of a giant plasma TV near silently screening the semi-porn video Kiss channel and full of very good Romanian salad and wine, stunned us all by reciting ‘The Seven Ages of Man’. For those who have recently missed its peerless sentiments, they can be found on a post below (or above or somewhere on this mysterious site). Life can sometimes be a kind of party.


As Jaques explains to Duke Senior in Act 2 Scene 7 of As You Like It (now out of copyright):

All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players;

They have their exits and their entrances,

And one man in his time plays many parts,

His acts being seven stages. At first, the infant,

Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.

Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel

And shining morning face, creeping like a snail

Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,

Sighing like a furnace, with a woeful ballad

Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,

Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,

Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,

Seeking the bubble reputation

Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,

In fair round belly with good capon lined,

With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,

Full of wise saws and modern instances;

And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts

Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,

With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;

His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide

For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,

Turning again toward childish treble, pipes

And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,

That ends this strange eventful history,

Is second childishness and mere oblivion,

Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

(Note the somewhat prejudiced attitude of the schoolboy to schooling, even in 1599.)

I still have my teeth.


In the first of these blogs I revealed myself to be a normal Australian, bothered in a low grade way by being in situations where I can’t understand the language. You know. Just a bit of a hassle, no big deal, but if I could walk along the Thames for a fortnight and talk to everyone I met and never encounter difficulties in comprehension, maybe I’m too old blah blah blah. Why can’t they just speak English? However as we arrived back at Heathrow after seven weeks of guessing and gesturing, it was like being shoved under a huge waterfall of verbiage, not necessarily a pleasant experience.

We know that foreign language study in most Anglophone countries is in decline. The last job I did before we left was to help the Asia Education Foundation with its paper ‘Building Demand for Asia Literacy‘ [nb. unpaid advertising Kathe and Kurt] which had a long section on how growth in enrolment, and competence, in Asian languages might be encouraged. As I wrote in that paper:’Sixteen percent of the Australian population speaks a language other than English at home, making this group, like the considerable majority of the world’s population, bi- or multi-lingual. But public life and discourse in this country is resolutely monolingual. This, of course, means that there are limited opportunities for the exposure to other languages in use which is so important for developing interest, familiarity, and competence. But it also provides sustenance to members of the community who believe that learning a language other than English is unnecessary and a waste of valuable learning time.’

It is always the case that I feel embarrassed about my linguistic deficiencies. Apart from anything else, in situations where everyone else appears to speak at least several languages, it seems deeply impolite to canter along in English.

Arif, the receptionist at our hotel in Budapest I have mentioned several times, spoke Turkish from birth, learnt Magyar in three months (he says), a feat akin to splitting the atom, although he began from experience in another agglutinative language, without the handicaps of English grammar and with the enormous incentive of needing to be able to talk to a woman who later became his wife and, perhaps more to the point, her family, and now after 30 years obviously has native or near native proficiency in his adopted tongue. His English is excellent, he speaks good French, and quite enough German, Italian and Dutch to resolve sometimes complex issues at the counter. As my sister Carmyl (a language teacher herself) might cheerily say, it’d make you sick.

Did everyone speak English? No they didn’t. In the backwoods of Austria, for example, they were less inclined to do so. But a surprising number did elsewhere. The girl behind the deli counter at the supermarket in Sighetu Marmatiei did. Perfect English. She had lived in Newcastle for two years with her immigrant labourer boyfriend. And that’s one thing: the possibility of exposure to another language through moving around through different countries makes language learning a more conventional experience.

I was reminded again of the obvious. The incentive to learn a language when you are immersed in an environment full of cues, and demands, is immense. If you want kids to learn Asian languages send them to Asia for a while.

Our local guides in Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey all spoke very good English. When I asked them, and many others, how they had learnt it there were various answers but ‘at school’ figured prominently. That was encouraging. It said something desirable about the possible impact of formal education. ‘Watching TV and films’ came in second, and I think I learnt more Magyar from the films we went to see in Budapest than from any more explicitly focused efforts. I was watching it in use with immediate access to both languages, and there were shortcuts for the (limited) sorts of things I wanted to say.

And what do you want to say? Hello’, ‘thank you’ and ‘very nice’ or ‘great’ were close to my limit. I threw away my Fodor’s Guide to 12 European Languages. It didn’t seem up to date and made assumptions about what sort of conversational moves you might want to make that were unsustainable. You ask ‘Where is the laundry?’, and then they tell you. Finito. You’re stuffed.

Travel guides are insistent that you should try to use the local language, but I decided that it was probably more true that you should try to communicate. I watched English-speakers, not the ones we were travelling with, look at a menu and say to a waitress who clearly spoke no English, like … none, ‘I’d like the lamb please with vegetables and a glass of red wine.’ No change in inflexion, no pointing, no miming, no effort to try sounding out the words directly in front of them, no smile, no hint of apology — and that strikes me as odd. Dysfunctional, a recipe for not getting what you want, but also ungenerous.

Why don’t they want to try? How can they miss the fun of trying to join in, miss out on all those ‘ah so that’s what it is’ moments, the pleasure of finding matches and links, like ‘periculos’ in Romanian meaning ‘danger’ just as ‘pericoloso’ does in Italian. (If you could speak Italian, or even better Latin, you would be able to accommodate a great deal of Romanian.) Or buying a very French ‘jeton’ to travel around Istanbul. Or that when we go to eat at Abla’s in Elgin St we are going to ‘older sister’s’. Or other mysteries like that well known English word ‘sache’ (pron. ‘sash’), a cast iron or clay sizzle plate from which we ate so much food in Romania and Bulgaria.  A few years ago in the hills outside Zagreb, Donny boy and Darko cooked us an octopus in a sač? (pron. ‘sash’), but its distinctive feature was a bell-shaped cast iron lid on which coals were piled (which unfortunately in the pictorial evidence is hiding in the oven).

It is hard to imagine that it isn’t part of the adventure of travel to wrestle with these small puzzles and revelations. Is it the prospect of making a mistake, or making yourself look silly that stops us trying? Is that somewhere among the reasons why most young Australians don’t want to learn another language? Probably.

Finally, it’s not just us. Another thing that mystified me was the shocking quality of English translations in formal settings like tags to art works in galleries. Hoorah that there is a translation, but why bother when such linguistic messes are produced? After a few hours in the Budapest’s National Art Gallery I was thinking that if they gave me a computer I could fix all the cards in no time. I don’t want to be more of a grumpy old man than I have to be, but in such circumstances how could you get them so wrong? Who’s doing this? Are they trying word-to-word correspondence out of a dictionary, a bad mistake with Magyar to English grammar? Do the translators get paid? Hasn’t anyone told the people in charge? Etc.

So … you know … maybe a walk along the Thames …

HUNGARY: To the border

A sprinkle of fairy dust and a message on the hotel’s notice board had turned us from a pair of travellers into 12. We met our companions for Intrepid Travel’s ‘Explore Eastern Europe’, Code WMSY, begin: Budapest, finish: Istanbul.

Neil was a retired miner and Ros a primary teacher from Queensland, Mat and Luz young Americans who celebrated their 365th consecutive day of travel a few days after our tour finished. They were still thinking about what they would do when they stopped. These four had already been on a connecting tour which had begun in St Petersburg. Marce and Claudine, role models for anyone over 45, introduced themselves as involved in motor sport. Chris lived on the shores of Lake Taupo with Jope, an engineer who had begun life in Holland before living in NZ for 30 or so years. JoNette was part of an Iowan farming family who had been doing some preliminary scouting with Lutheran contacts in central Europe. Marta in her late 20s from Poland was our guide.

There are 1000 ways to travel. More. As many as you can think of. But somehow we were the customers Intrepid were expecting. They had found our pitch. Very good locations to stop, places you wouldn’t necessarily find yourself and not full of people who looked, sounded and were just like you. There was something interesting to do at each with no compulsion, lots of free time, plain but interesting and sometimes very roomy accommodation, good company, and of course someone else to worry about tickets and times. Excellent three-star tour, and I may have mentioned this before but we are three-star kinda guys. After this tour we added another couple of our stars for a week or so in Turkey, and it was great, but not any better.

Name three cities in Hungary that aren’t Budapest. Okay. How about one? No. I couldn’t either. But nearly 10 million people live in Hungary, and they have to live somewhere. We went through Györ on the train to Budapest and when I looked at the name on the station I wasn’t sure what I was looking at. So, not Szeged (and I’m leaving off the complicated accenting systems here), not Nyireghaza, not Szekesfehervar, not Kecskemet, not Szombathely, not Pecs (not ‘pesht’, but ‘petsh’!). I found Veszprem almost on the shores of Hungary’s inland sea, Lake Balaton (‘Our ocean’, said Arif; and no I didn’t know that either) and felt a faint thrill as Patrick of Veszprem plays football for the Dogs, and wondered idly whether the rest of the population might have good initial pace but no real engine, no capacity to dominate a game.

Our first stop together was Eger (‘egga’) maybe from the Hungarian word for ‘alder tree’, égerfa. Some indication of its history is that in Latin it is/was known as Agriain, in German as Erlau, in Serbian as Jegar or Jerap and in Croatian (wouldn’t you know) Jegra or Jerpa, in Czech and Slovene as Jager, in Slovak as Jáger, in Polish as Jagier, and in Turkish as Eğri. Multiple, and differing, names is a common phenomenon in this part of the world. It’s the second largest town in northern Hungary (60,0o0, after Debrecen) and has been the seat of a Roman Catholic bishopric since 1009.

It has a castle designed to hold the line against the Ottomans, which withstood a lengthy siege during 1552. This nation-building event was novelised by Gárdonyi Géza in the C19th as Egri csillagok (‘Stars of Eger’), set reading for all who inhale the Hungarian national curriculum. Civics perhaps. As with many such stories, the situation was temporary. The Turks overran the castle forty years later and held it and the surrounds for the next 90 years, until of course they in turn were starved into submission by a force led by Charles of Lorraine.

As is my wont, I fell asleep on the train and woke to rolling limestone hills covered with vineyards, another reason why Eger is renowned. Mixing bull’s blood into the wine of the soldiers withstanding the siege of 1552 is credited for their intransigence. Today Eger wineries’ best known product is Egri Bikavér (‘bulls blood of Eger’).

We hauled our luggage out of the train and began the walk — which became customary, the intrepid part of Intrepid travel — to our accommodation. Later in the day we went past one of those flashing time/temperature signs on a branch of Citibank which said 38 degrees. The kids in the main drag didn’t seem to be noticing. Marta did her dutiful best to tell us interesting things about the town, but I only wanted three things from Eger: a cold drink, a pair of sandals and a swim. We had lunch in one of those tourist mistake restaurants, served as and when interested by a tepidly drunk waiter, much quicker with the beer than the food. Marce and Claudine were our companions. Claudine and I discovered we may have met 30 years ago at Avila College in Glen Waverley where she had taught. And that she was a teacher of Indonesian.

We ignored the castle, too hot, and staggered off to look at the northernmost still-standing minaret in Europe. Above is its base and one of those textured European walls which you can think of as shabby and derelict or characterful and beautiful ‘in their own way’. You will notice I am sheltering in the shadow of the minaret, and not only for visual effect. On one other side of the square was a room containing a hundred (or so) large things made out of marzipan, and on another again these guys working in the full sun. Makes a great photo but that steel scaffolding would have been stinging to the touch.

We negotiated the purchase of a pair of sandals, Myrna much more gifted and active in this process than I. So much more practised and confident around a shop. We tried to bargain our way into the Lyceum. It had a camera obscura on its top floor which provided its own sort of view of the whole town and environs. It was also cool in the lofty stone atrium of this, internally at least, very attractive building. But it had closed for the day.

At breakfast I had been peering over JoNette’s shoulder at her guidebook and noted there was a swimming pool at Eger significant enough for inclusion. Eger is also home to a series of thermal baths, many more than I knew when I was snooping, and it was one of those we rolled up at, about 4pm on a very hot afternoon. Closed for the day. Finished. Over. How could that be? Where were the junior denizens of Eger busting for a swim? Was Hungary (whispering only) not very sporty …?

Well, number one, we were at the wrong place anyway unless we wanted hot water. It was a thermal baths. Another disappointed candidate with a little English directed us 150 metres down the road to an open air pool. We could hear the noise and I climbed up on some rubble and certainly found the Eger kids who wanted a swim. (See below.) Then I looked over my shoulder and there it was. (At left). Another pool, the one in JoNette’s guidebook. Looking more like a church than a pool, I recognised it from the photo. Never happier than when swimming in a cathedral, we went looking for how to get in. (I subsequently discovered this was one of eight pools within about 500m., mostly thermal, running cheek by jowl with the creek that bisects Eger.)

And number two. Hungary not being very sporty. Well I beg your pardon! “It is no exaggeration to say that Hungary is a genuine sports power. The last century not only abounded in the country’s outstanding individual accomplishments, but also in acclaimed team successes. With 465 medals, Hungary is ninth on the all-time Olympic medal table as the most successful nation that has never hosted the summer Olympics.” (Read more here.) 465 medals I thought. Wow. (Australia 468, and Hungary doesn’t even have beaches …) That will be fencing, modern pentathlon, shooting, proper Magyar sports, and yes water polo.

I was right about fencing and modern pentathlon, but swimming and canoeing are big too. Quite a spread of success across sports in fact. But water polo, mate … . Hungary has sent a water polo team to 20 Olympic Games for 3 Bronze, 3 Silver and 9 Gold medals. Fifteen medals, nine gold from 20 starts. More than twice as many gold as anyone else. As we walked home from the pool we went past a group of huge strapping lads who I took for a particularly well-fed visiting African soccer team. (They were many attractive shades of brown.) As we came closer I noted they had Hungary Water Polo logos on their T-shirts.

The fancy pool. (Those of you using a decent-sized screen have a look here for a startling technological experience. In particular look at the detail in the roof. A cathedral? Yes I think so. It is set up for water polo here which it wasn’t when we were there. And, I note, that if you go here the restaurant with the tipsy waiter is the first on the left over the stone bridge, the one behind the bloke with the singlet bag! Ah technology.)

We found the entry, the door anyway. As in a number of European pools we have encountered, actual entry is a different proposition. There may be a circulation system so you risk entering the exit, and can you use money or do you need to buy a token of some sort which may or may not be related to entry or a locker? At what point do you take your shoes off, and is there a bath of disinfectant for your feet? If so, where is it and at what point do you use it? If you would like to take your stuff onto the pool deck are you allowed, and if you’re not what else do you do? And anyway where’s the door to the pool deck? Back the way you came? Maybe on the other side of the showers so you can’t avoid them. And is that guy the attendant, or on the brink of a proposition? And you haven’t even got your togs on yet! Wait for the mayhem when you start swimming on the wrong side of the lane.

At this pool, where they hold the national swim meets, we first had to persuade the entry lady that we wanted to swim up and down with some degree of seriousness. After a few minutes I said ‘Australian’ and that turned the corner for us. We bought a token and both went in the wrong way and put our tokens in the exit slot which meant we weren’t issued the wrist band with an allowance for a locker key on it. Had to go round again. I left my shoes on way longer than I should have and the guy watching me did turn out to be the attendant and he sorted me out and gave me a box to put them in. And then there was the locker. I matched numbers and felt pretty smart about that, and found the foot bath but couldn’t work out how the hell to get from where I was to the pool. All hygenic and ready to swim and just nowhere to go. And then I did spot a door nearly hidden on the other side of the showers, tried it and there I was, an international representative. The photo above says there were three others swimming, a dozen others in the spa and about the same number lying in the sun. Below is the pool immediately next door for the disadvantaged. 

That night, and I have no photos of this, I must simply gloss it, we went to the ‘Valley of the Beautiful Women’, a vast collection of caves (in the French sense) to taste their contents. I was immersed in listening to Jope telling me about thermodynamics, and energy conservation and recovery, and where he was up to with a patent for a process he had invented and so walked past the first 150 or so without noticing, but when I looked back there they were, and we weren’t even in the valley at that stage. After a low key beginning to the evening, we scrambled down 20 or so metres of steps into something very definably underground, and the resident Mama took over with astonishing zest. She was as much stand up comic as vigneron and soon we were roaring. She also had some very fine red wine up her capacious sleeves. It was a long but slightly cool and very lovely walk home. There are records of this evening. I was unable to destroy them all.

I would have been happy to spend more time in Eger but it was only a way station en route to Romania. Next morning it was still hot but cooler with a dirty grey European haze, part moisture part suspended solids. We got up early to walk to the bus station and waited anxiously in the large crowd, much more than a bus full, who appeared to be going in our direction and by the same means. As it turned out, Marta must have charmed the bus driver another time — this is what a guide is for you see — and he loaded our luggage and then let us get on first leaving 15-20 people, seemingly part of a tour, and older, standing in the aisle. I would like to say I stood up and gave them my seat but I didn’t. Mat and Luz did. No opening windows, but no air con either for the three-hour trip.

The countryside we were passing through reminded me of the Wimmera (the region in western Victoria where Myrna and I grew up). Central Europe has had various versions of drought for eight to ten years and this area had the same sort of burnt out quality as the Wimmera and Mallee in late February along with the same huge skies. The crops were not wheat and barley however, but corn and sunflowers, and harvest was well over. The houses were not mansions but perfectly presentable. This car may have been a Trabant.

Debrecen (‘dubrretsin’) I knew from the produce of one of the most popular stalls at the Vic Market, the hot dogs near the entrance to the deli section. They offer bratwurst, sometimes weisswurst, beef, spicy and debreceners.

Debrecen is the second largest city in Hungary (a bit over 200,000) and for a short time in the C19th was its capital. It has had a tertiary education institution since 1548 (the Calvinist College) and is still a university town (the University of Debrecen). It had the enormous misfortune to be a military centre during WW II and was the site of a massive tank battle which was one cause of the destruction of more than half of its buildings, a fact painfully obvious from its outskirts. Communist architects have their way with a tower block, and the reason they go so bad can only be put down to the people who live in them. (Yeah sure …) But the town’s centre has been restored and was quiet, open and gracious.

It was difficult to imagine this on a hot summer afternoon in 2012, but this is the very first site of the uprising in 1956, as bloody here as elsewhere.

We only had a few hours in Debrecen, an interlude: enough to eat really well, buy some ice cream, look for a market and not find it, and go to the art gallery (which only had three pictures to look at, all by Munkácsy Mihály. This will be discussed further elsewhere). We took a tram to the station and got on with the next leg of a big day of travel which was a long way from over.

We were still on the Great Hungarian Plain, also known as the Pannonian Basin and extending into six countries including Romania. The Carpathians are shaped like a huge question mark through this region with the full stop in eastern Greece. We were travelling through the area circumscribed by the big curl and heading for its apex in the Ukraine. It was still hot and flat. There was only one small town in the 50 or so k.s between Debrecen and the border post at Nyírábrány (For your viewing pleasure.) which I think in Magyar means ‘nowhere’.

The train stopped and we surrendered our passports, never a pleasant experience, but just for a stamp to say we’d been to Hungary and were leaving. However, Chris had arrived at Schiphol in The Netherlands and whoever was supposed to have stamped her passport there to say she had arrived in Europe had failed to do so. She didn’t exist, or if she did she was a persona non grata, unwelcome at least to leave Hungary in this indefinite condition. The train sat, and it sat. People in blue uniforms with guns came back and forth. Sometimes it looked good when the pleasant woman held sway. Sometimes it didn’t when the big bloke in the boots was deciding how the job was to be done. Chris had her itinerary, her record of travel and even her entry flight boarding pass! But to no avail. Chris was marched off the train, Marta with her. I went to take a photo of their departure out the window of the train and the large gentleman with the large gun held up his hand. He didn’t say ‘Nem’ or ‘Nincs’. He said, ‘NO’. And then the train left the station heading for western Romania.

We were down a traveller and a guide, and I didn’t know what was supposed to happen next …

BUDAPEST: ‘Pesht’. Say ‘pesht’. Come on. How hard can that be … ‘pesht’ …

I was corpulent with knowledge when the train pulled into Keleti station. Almost over-briefed in fact. Firstly, I knew we didn’t have to panic about getting off because the train couldn’t go any further. No station identification problems. A tremendous relief. Secondly, I knew we were going to get done over, eviscerated, by the cunning Hungarian touts (CHTs) waiting for us, quite openly, without shame, at the sticky end of the platform. They’d all said it: Trip Adviser, Lonely Planet, Intrepid. We were gone. To make things worse I was wearing white socks, floppy shorts, a big hat (have I mentioned heat at all?) and a 3.7 metre neon arrow with ‘Dickhead. Take him down’ written on it.

That didn’t stop me flinching when approached by the nearest CHT. ‘Fix price 20 euros’, he sneered. (Note the incorrect adjectival form. Incredible giveaway.) I happened to have a 20 euro note in my pocket (X-Ray vision!) so I said yes. His donkey cart had been exchanged (another ploy no doubt) for an air-conditioned Mercedes van. I made no effort to stop him putting our somewhat distended luggage in the boot, and he made no effort to drive off until we were seated inside the vehicle. So devious was he, he tried to win our confidence by attempting to identify what we were passing and why it was of interest in a highly individual form of English, almost certainly code. I watched nervously as we cantered down Erzsébet körut (Elizabeth St: might as well have stayed at home) and he made the complicated arrangements for a turn into Dessewffy utca. At number 36 he stopped. He came round to the door. As chance would have it he was just opening the door for Myrna. When he drove off I let out the breath I’d been holding for 15 or so minutes and thanked our lucky stars we’d made it through. (Interrogating the same set of assurances, later that day I was not approached by prostitutes in Vaci ut. In no way should this be considered a reflection on my manhood. We’ll just have to put that down to inscrutability.)

We were in the East.

I’m not sure where East begins. If I say the Austro-Hungarian border historians would turn away restraining mirth. Geographers would point out that even Antioch and Damascus are only considered the NEAR East, although one might prefer to use the term Levant. I could try Mosul and Baghdad, but if I really wanted to be sure, Vladivostock and Beijing.

Humour me. I was developing a set of (non-performance-related) criteria to define Eastern Europe. But then I found this photo. I won’t call it a joyous celebration of irresponsibility, and there are parts of Rakoczi ut where someone would have stepped in instantly and tidied up. But you can see what you’re getting. Anything else you’d like? Budapest. The East. And I didn’t take the photo only because it’s slightly daggy. If this was transported to the Saatchi Gallery it would be deemed art. But, lo and behold, we’re not in Austria any more. We’re on the other side of what used to be called the Iron Curtain.

Our hotel was an excellent 3-star hotel in an excellent 3-star location just behind the opera house; a little like Fitzroy, a little like North Melbourne but with the action more distributed. We ate our way through the menu (on differing occasions) at a first class 3-star restaurant, Chagall, just round the corner which provided excellent 5-star people watching opportunities.

This is the photo people usually take of Budapest: the Danube in an appropriate shade of blue, with the Chain Bridge singing along in 3/4 time (a zither somewhere in the background however).

Here’s Buda … and here’s Pest (pesht! Come on. Truly (shakes head).).






I’d like to propose several alternatives.

This one for a start — Magyar Budapest.

As indicated by the painting’s scale and setting, this is a profound moment in Hungarian history — Árpád (Árpád apánk,’our father’) along with the six Magyar Chieftains receiving tribute (certainly, as visually identified, dirt and grain; maybe cheese) from the populace of the Pannonian Plain on the welcome discovery that they were actually Magyar too! Tremendous luck, as Arpad, possibly a descendent of Attila, and his crew had come about 1500 km, on horseback, crossing the Carpathians in the process. As this occurred around 895 AD some of the detail may be lost, and it was 100 years later that St Stephen (not the St Stephen of Austria) actually developed the nation which dominated southern Europe as far as Spain around the turn of the first millenium AD.

The Magyars were famed for their ferocity, and they are a visible presence in the statuary and public art of the city. For some reason they are more or less uniformly portrayed — well, for a start they’re only men, who knows how they procreated (although…) — with wide shoulders, very narrow hips, barrel chests and long, very straight noses with no indent at the bridge. Like this.

 Or this.

Or this.

The Hungary of the 1956 Olympic water polo tournament is still remembered and discussable as an historical moment. For this reason, to come from Melbourne can be an oblique matter of interest. Budapest as fierce, proud, and angry.

A second set of images — communist Budapest. I struck up a friendship with Arif one of the receptionists at our hotel, a Turk who had married a Hungarian and lived in Budapest for 30 years. He also ran a taxi business and at our request took us out here, 45 minutes out of town, to the Memento Park ‘In the Shadow of Stalin’s boots’. We spent several hours with him. He earnt the equivalent of 400 euros (525AUD) a week. If he moved inside the chain and did the same job in Germany 1200 euros, but he didn’t want to leave his adopted home. So he drove taxis when he could.

We talked about that water polo match. He knew all about it. We also talked about the impact and residue of communism in Hungary. ‘They don’t care about public things. Everything got set back because no one cares. Still … there’s lots of growth now, in tourism. Hungary hasn’t got anything else. But they have forgotten how to make money. Under Communism everyone had a job. They didn’t have to worry. Now some people still think the same and it rubs off on the rest. I’ve sent my children (four, now adult) away to learn how they do things differently.’ Everyone’s responsibility is no one’s responsibility: I’d heard that before. And yes you can see all that. If you wanted Budapest to be like Vienna you would not just have to spend a fortune on infrastructure, you would also have to wrench the consciousness of its citizens to some quite different setting.

‘In the Shadow of Stalin’s Boots’ is the result of a community decision to get rid of all the communist art from its initial setting and collect it here. The conceiver of the park had a grand and most interesting vision of what it should be: the empty forecourt in front of the empty boots for example. (The rest of this statue was destroyed in the uprising.) ‘Democracy is the only regime that is prepared to accept that our past with all its dead ends is still ours. … The park is a critique of the ideology that used these statues as symbols of authority.’ This is only very partially realised, but I’m glad to know that the park had such a foundation.

Now. Stand back …

The Treaty of Trianon which followed the first World War stripped Hungary of two-thirds of its territory (notably Croatia, parts of the Ukraine and Transylvania) leaving three million people who considered themselves Hungarian outside its borders and devastating its economic base. During the early stages of WW II the Arrow Cross party, fascists closely allied to the Nazis, took control until April 4, 1945 when the Russians entered Budapest. Then for 46 years, so recent, it became a Soviet outpost. Ten percent of its population died in the Second World War; an equal number were killed or deported in the years that followed.

This is all recorded in detail in the House of Terror, one of Budapest’s most popular tourist destinations. Arif thought we should see it. I didn’t like it much. Too much boppy music and too many sound effects. I thought silence would have been more appropriate for a story of such bleakness and ill chance.

On this same memorable day we went to this edifice which happened to have a display of Chinese art. We dumped our packs in the cloak room and wandered into the first room. The art was contemporary and of mixed interest, the sort of thing you might see anywhere but in this case with one of the attendants snoring stentoriously. Then we went upstairs to the rest and I realised with a start that we were looking at 60 pieces of art which recorded one of the most dramatic changes in history. An etching of a strikingly handsome Chou En Lai inspecting the impact of an earthquake which wasn’t made public for 14 years, a group of farmers dividing land into privately-owned parcels, 6 metres of village life every inch of which was worth close inspection, a wave sweeping everything before it, Deng Xiao Ping with a telltale strong wind riffling through his hair. Chinese art at its very highest level, in terms of both craft and significance. I couldn’t take photos, but I will never forget it. Another story about the fate of communism.

The third set of images. Budapest as a living city. These are more in my head rather than the camera’s card. We saw Wes Anderson’s quirky ‘Moonrise Kingdom’ in an arthouse cinema packed with locals and loved it; and Woody Allen’s new film which unfortunately was one-third in Italian and the subtitles remained resolutely in Hungarian. We ate ice cream at the New York Cafe and cruised the river. Below is a preschool in one of the posher parts of town. But the noise coming over the fence was just as joyful as it would be anywhere else.

It could look like Helsinki,or somewhere else. But I loved its texture and its humanity, its lack of pretension. It always seemed to be itself, organically well integrated. 

Finally …

A Little Poem for Budapest [trs. from the Hungarian by D. McRae and Google]

SOTER                                       SOTER (a proper noun. A shop, opposite our hotel, with it all.)

  • Teāzó / Vízipipāzo                  Tea and  shish*
  • Könyvek                                    Books
  • Ajāndektārgyak Elöadāsok   Performance products
  • Terembérlés                              Rent a room
  • Sorselemzés                              Fate analysis.

What is left to say after that? I have nothing further to add.

Coming up: Eger, Debrecen and Romania

[*Of modest semantic interest. Depending on which part of Eastern Europe and the Levant you live, ‘shish’ (or ‘shisha’) means ‘water pipe’ OR the flavoured tobacco you smoke in it.]



VIENNA: The world’s second most liveable city

Ah … the doctor.

And nobody waiting. Great.

Now, what’s on your mind?

Egon Schiele died three days after his wife in 1918 aged 28. Despite that, he deserves a place in any pantheon of 20th century heroes of the visual arts. His line is as fluid as Brett Whiteley’s but more structural. It seems to reflect his own physical angularity, if not some of the twists of his resolutely, unthinkingly, exposed consciousness. He does things with his colour palette that are beyond many more famous artists. (Look at that sheet.) His early work could be seen as derivative — he spent a lot of time with Kokoschka, and Klimt extended a variety of patronage. But whose is not? Sometime around the production of his ‘Death and the Maiden’, the time when he decided to marry ‘advantageously’ and abandon his lover of some years, an unmistakable individuality emerges and the range of his preoccupations expands. The flavour is so strong, however, you wonder what his oeuvre might have become had he lived longer.

What did I learn about Freud from our visit to his rooms? That he was a prodigiously hard worker, reading and writing at a staggering rate. (He had a chair made so he could stick his feet up over the arms when reading. I can confirm the comfort of this position.) That, like anyone beginning a successful movement, he was a manic ‘networker’ and a very fine single issue politician. That he was as preoccupied as Jung with ‘primitivism’ and the objets and art works that seemed to hold clues to its meanings. The photos of his very modest consulting rooms illustrate hundreds of these. That he had a daughter who became a model researcher of child psychology, investigating among other things, the impact of food on concentration and a sense of well being. And that civilisation still has its discontents.

* * * * *

Take it as given that Vienna is Vienna: comfortable, orderly, easy to get around, great food, excellent transport system. All that. It’s no news either that it is one of the mansions of monumentalism.IMG_0564

This is a statue by Antonio Canova, the early 19th century’s maestro of marble: ‘Theseus fighting the centaur’ (Eurytus, the ‘fiercest of all the fierce centaurs’ according to Ovid). It was commissioned by Napoleon to be placed in Milan’s Corso, but patronage shifted with fortune. It wasn’t finished till 1817 and was purchased by Emperor Franz I. It has found itself in various situations but has come to a standstill on the major landing of the major staircase in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum.

There have been many moments in the last two months when I’ve thought about who, if anyone, would be good at fighting in pre-1950s war. How would you get and keep soldiers interested in the task at hand? What would you promise them? (At the fall of Constantinople Fatih Sultan Mehmed II promised his men — with wildly varying stakes in the outcome and from all over the Ottoman empire; a unit from Belgrade was in the van of the assault that did the crucial damage — anything they could get their hands on for three days. Anything left was his.) Could a great soldier possibly be a good bloke, or even an attractive dinner guest? Wouldn’t the qualities required cancel out living well in normal society? Would you want your daughter to marry one? Not just a man in uniform, a VC winner? Muddle, chaos, fury. The blood- and gore-spattered champion surrounded by corpses dead and still quivering. Tolstoy. War and Peace.

Modern warfare has done much to take this distastefulness out of the process and, as I looked at Theseus here, so has Canova. This is what we want our warriors to be. Knee in the belly, hand on the throat and, despite the opponent’s fabulous musculature and, one imagines, the considerable advantage of four legs and a huge back, apparently stronger, Theseus appears implacable, absolutely imperturbable, almost serene. He is dealing out a hiding with no more emotion than a robot or perhaps, even, at a stretch, the blind justice that was supposed to characterise the proceedings of the Austro-Hungarian and other empires. Rather than the gorgeous building in which it is housed (with a Vermeer, a beauty, possibly the best, Raphaels, Caravaggios and Rembrandts filling out the corners) and all the rest of the built Ring, the real remnant of empire may be this notion of conquest as muscular, voluptuous, but also clinical and free of complication. That’s what I thought standing there.

Another monument: the vast sweep of one wing of the Hofburg Palace including the balcony from which Hitler greeted the consummation of the Anschluss to a crowd of delighted Austrians. (100,000? maybe. There would have been enough room. Who knows.)

Vienna is the home of the Strauss family and the warmly perfumed delights of opera’s greatest hits which we heard performed so perfectly in the Grosser Redoutensaal just behind this wing in another part of the same gargantuan palace. But it is also the home of Mahler and Schoenberg. Freud I’ve mentioned. Adler, another giant of psychiatry, Elias Canetti, Joseph Roth, Martin Buber, Wittgenstein, Karl Popper, Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger, Peter Lorre, Fritz Kreisler, Theodor Herzl (the father of Zionism), Wilhelm Reich, Richard Tauber, Rudolph Bing, Stefan Zweig — some party this would be — all Viennese Jews.

In 1938 a government census indicated that just over 180,000 Jews were permanent residents of Austria of whom about 167,000 lived in Vienna. In 1942 there were somewhere between 2,000 and 5,000, and nearly all of the scores of synagogues had been destroyed. 65,000 Austrian Jews who can be named were killed in the holocaust.

The process by which the Nazis ‘linked up’ with Austria via the Anschluss was … find a word: underhand? criminal? inexorable? bad? But warmly welcomed by at least a portion of the local populace. The constitutions of both the Weimar Republic and the First Austrian Republic included the political goal of unification. This goal was widely supported by democratic parties and labour organisations.

This is not free of complication. Perhaps like any great city, Vienna has its glorious broad avenues. It also has its bent arcades and blind laneways.

Another monument, just near the Albertina.

We walked past this half a dozen times. I didn’t make a note of its name. As I remember it is on the site of an apartment block bombed by the allies during the second World War with many fatalities. It’s preposterously ugly, but I guess it was meant to be. (Raising a larger question: how literal can artistic representations afford to be? Must boredom be portrayed by boredom?) But there is an unresolved ambiguity about it. And I think it is there in the solder’s helmet. Oh, German. (And it probably isn’t of course. Austrian.) But is this, possibly, a memorial to the losers, a criticism of the allied bombing? What sort of memorials to war do you put up when you lose?

Not far from here is a memorial to the Fathers of the Austrian Republic. I think Karl Seitz was one of the three weatherbeaten veterans of endless meetings. It had been removed and restored to its place several times.

* * * * *

Without complication was the pleasure of seeing Simon’s sister Jo, Robert her husband and the splendid Anna pictured here. We ate, drank and talked. The weather was balmy and we met at whatever the nightly festival was called at the Rathaus (coarsely, ‘town hall’) which offered any imaginable form of food and plenty of beer and aperol. We had a long conversation with Jo and Elaine, another member of her string quartet, about life as a musician in Vienna. That is complicated. Members of the Vienna Philharmonic get paid about 8000 euros a month but are on tour most of the year. To be successful it helps to have been born in Vienna rather than Aberdeen or Adelaide. It was ever thus.

Elaine’s Canadian composer husband and son went off to play ice hockey, Jo took Anna home to bed and we went to the free outdoor film festival. Every night in summer you can watch opera or musical performance for nothing in the blessed open air on the monster screen against the wall of the Rathaus. For our pleasure, Benvenuto Cellini by Berlioz as performed in a most lively fashion at the 2006 Salzburg festival. Then we, too, went home. Thinking how splendid Vienna had been, but … east.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have Budapest to examine … (more)

AUSTRIA: ‘Climb steeply through the forest …’

It was hot when the plane arrived in Salzburg, and 39 the next day. I had no idea central Europe could get that hot — during the seven weeks we were away I think I wore long pants twice — and Salzburg is full of light-coloured surfaces which dazzle in the glare. We wandered round the streets, stumbled across a modest but very fine Andy Warhol exhibition and did find THE place to eat, Alter Fuchs in the Linzer Gasse, and enjoyed their very fine beer.

But we weren’t there to eat; we were there to circumnavigate the Halstattersee, six days of walking in the Dachstein alps.

The cause was a viewing, for me for the first time, of the film of The Sound of Music, that extraordinary and not a little weird (3 hours; big weird) glimpse of populist perfection. And in the beginning, just before we fling ourselves into the arms of England’s darling and commence noting that the hills are alive with the sound of etc., there are 90 seconds of helicopter shots of some alps. These looked like fun to me. The splendid folk at Sherpa were offering an unguided trip there, and we went. Had the gloves, the beanie, the polypros top and bottom, the polar fleece, the Goretex (registered trademark) and needed none of them.

We took the train to Bad Goisern, about two hours east and then south from Salzburg, and found things equally hot but quiet-ish, if not so at the pool.

Quality bombs issued from the high board, but those performing the near motionless breastroke (as I remember from Switzerland, the central European stroke of choice) were left undisturbed. Very Austrian. We did laps because we’re Australian.

The shell of this pool (and the other one we swan in at Gosau, not in such immaculate condition) was made from welded stainless steel. Given the difficulty of welding stainless steel (Keith), what can I say? A masterpiece. It was certainly lovely to swim in.

It was pretty quiet when we left next morning for the first day of walking as well, even though the clock indicates that peak hour was upon us.

The first day was something of a warm-up. A train backwards, so to speak, north to Bad Ischl — a slightly larger and equally pretty town, famed for its waters — then walk back to Bad Goisern climbing over Predigstuhl on the way.

Predigstuhl turned out to be a big stump of a thing rather like a volcanic plug although very clearly limestone; not very high, but ‘hang on to the tree roots to move upwards’ steep. The track notes warned of mud. Dust was a much more salient problem.

 The track notes also began — Note Number One in fact — with a direction to cross this bridge.

Yes this one. There. To the left. Described as elegant. It may well be again, but some time in the future. Hiding to the right of the picture, however, is a perfectly acceptable alternative.

Stacks of wood, carbon copies of the one pictured here, were a feature of the walk. Walls of fuel, it would seem to be disappointing to tamper with them for functional purposes.

From the top of Predigstuhl we got our first look at the Halstattersee with the Dachstein proper (with glacier) behind. Bad Goisern is at this end of the lake. The idea was to climb up over the range to the right to another small town called Gosau, then back over another alp (or alm) to Halstatt, invisible here at the lake’s end. Then one of three options for returning to Bad Goisern.

The median peaks here are around 2000m, and forested. On the horizon is Hohe Dachstein (not ‘Hoch’, we’re in Austria) which peaks at five metres under 3000. Krippenstein which figures later is the first decent bump from the left.

This is what dills look like when they get to the top of a mountain. Other people take a more functional approach. The shade was deeply appreciated. You can see the route of our descent to the left of the picture on the right. There was a very useful klettersteig (fixed cable with pitons or steel rods driven into the cliff face) which we climbed down. I have no photos as all limbs were fully engaged. But we waited at the top while a family of five came up, boys of about four and seven clipped on, a young mum, and dad with the baby in a pack on his back. This was an occasional theme of this walk. In fact, every time the going got really difficult we would run across a family, mostly going past us, in the same direction. (Ah look … it was hot. They’re used to it over there.)

The next day was the traverse to Gosau. I thought I knew where we were going. We would sidle west past the worst of the alp and then come round the back as it were. But no! That idea may well even have been un-Austrian. Straight up and over. You will see the track in a picture below. Fierce.

Amateur alpine climbs often initially follow streams. The gradient is stable, unarguable navigation and there is less vegetation to negotiate. Up higher you can get out on the crest of a rocky rib and chase zig zags to climb. This track consisted of both these strategies, the first section being badly degraded by use as a logging chute. (They were cutting saw logs near the top of Predigstuhl when we were there, and these hills vibrate not so much with the sound of music as chain saws, generators, and cable pulls.)

I was painfully hot and thirsty when we got to the Hut at the top of the track, and nothing would have been nicer than the several large beers which were available.

There are two themes here. The heat seemed to have limited impact on the locals who were certainly not slipping, slopping and slapping. Clothes off, lying in the sun, which at midday at 1800m. was no nonsense heatstroke material. That’s what I thought.

What was actually going on was sipping, sopping and slurping. After I had eaten my macaroni cheese and salad we climbed higher to Kalmbach, had a sit down and a look around, came back. This would have taken an hour or so and, as measured by the empty bottles, the folk who had been tucking into the beer when we left were now into their sixth or seventh half litre. There are only two ways down, the way we’d come and the way we were going, and neither were what you’d describe as a doddle. Lord knows how you’d go with a skinfullagrogg.

Macaroni cheese and salad did you hear me say? Most of the way up a mountain? Yes. Not in Australia. But people who want to have a feed have been climbing over these hills a long time. Mine host, his wife and daughter lived in a section of the hut, and none of them felt compelled to whiz down below to Maislinger’s for a quick feed and a yarn. Provisions came up a cable lift. This was mid-week and about 30 people were on the mountain and patronising the hut. A few days later on the other traverse we ran into the Gosauer Bummelzug (slow train), a carriage affair pulled in this instance by a tractor, which had brought about that many people to another high hut to tuck into the Zipfer and the Steigl and the stodgy but comforting fare. (There’s probably important research somewhere about the way in which cheese absorbs alcohol.) They were roaring by the time we found them. In fact their noise helped us find the track which we’d momentarily mislaid. But far be it from me to look down my nose. It was a great day for a beer.

At 1833m the top of Kalmbach is well up and affords, or on this beautiful day did, a wonderful view over the surrounds. As the long lens of the G12 so capably captured, we could see the pool in Bad Goisern if not actually count the number of swimmers. I was taking various snaps from on high — the hut is very nicely exposed from the summit — and it wasn’t till later that I found that I could see the track very plainly. (It is also visible in the photo to the left I realise, but from a more oblique angle.) And here it is, dropping off into nothingness.The kilometre or so across the tops was amongst the nicest walking in the six days, alpine meadows strewn with rocks, cows and huts — soft underfoot, shady and picturesque. And after four or five hours, having had a willing and cheerful conversation with some folk whose English was as good as my Hoch Deutsche near another of these bars in the sky, we got to Gosau, or actually a kilometre past because that’s where our gasthaus was. There is plenty of joy in such arrivals. It had been an athletic day.

The next day was a choice from a set of relatively easy options. We chose to take a bus to the Gosausee, walk around it and on up to its higher sibling, seven k.s up and seven back. Myrna swam in the upper lake while I shrank into the shade and prepared, ate and thoroughly enjoyed, lunch.

It was this morning that I began my foray into live footage. The early hours were cool, exquisite really. There were strips of morning cloud floating through the crags, glamorous reflections on the surface of the lake, the slightest hint of rain and the constant accompaniment of cowbells. I wanted to capture the cowbells on film and got stuck right into it. Now, I have this file. There is motion, if largely of my right leg, but the cowbells are disguised by another sound which goes roughly: Oh bloody hell. Bum bum bum. I’ve pressed the wrong bloody button. So, just assume heavy duty cowbells in the pictures nearby. Clank to yourself. [Findlay Films is not yet under threat. Not. Yet.]

That night there was a phenomenal electrical storm. I was at our third floor window watching and listening to the slow glop glop glop of tropical raindrops while the fairies played with fire behind the Gosaukamm (the range at the rear). Then, smack bang, the metaphorical roof fell in. The next day as we left for Halstatt there was still plenty of water around , but as we discovered subsequently the real damage had been done at our destination.

Another fabulous day of walking. ‘Climb steeply through the forest’ was the most common phrase in the track notes, and while this wasn’t the one hit wonder of a couple days before, it was a series of recurrent solid climbs replete with a good many false dawns. We found the crack in the limestone inhabited by the wild female spirits of Lockenmoos, and only a solitary other soul on the track to whom I gave incorrect directions in French.

This day is full of character and I mention only the extraordinary descent at Durchgangalm, 150m in 150m, and what we found at its bottom. The track notes had mentioned that we might find a spring which kept cold a box of beer, soft drink and iced coffee. That’s one of those long shots that might or might not come off, a fabulous dream. The author of the notes may have been hallucinating at the time after a big day. But, lo and behold, photographic evidence. The weather was still hot, we had had plenty of strenuous exertion, and the chance to drink something other than water, and cold, was somewhere near sensational. I see this photo as belonging to the genre of the advertisement. I was very happy to overpay the honesty box. This walk. A thrill a minute!

There’s a lot to say here about massive ancient salt works (which gave Salzburg both its name and its wealth and prominence) and the Halstatter culture and one of the largest cemeteries ever found in the ancient world and rockfalls and fires and pumping brine a score or so of kilometres through wooden pipes in the 16th century and startling beauty which has not gone unnoticed by Japanese tourists. Not to mention Emporer Friedrich’s favourite dessert (scrambled pancake in plum jam: true, and rubbish). But we’re keeping things moving here and you’ll just have to go yourself.

The notes were emphatic that the last few k.s down into Halstatt should be walked. The alternative is a funicular which costs bugger all, takes no time and runs every 15 minutes. Who on earth would be interested? However, we were spared even the consideration of the options by the fact that last night’s storm had destroyed a lot of the walking track and brought down a tree that had nearly truncated access to Rudolph’s Tower, a dramatic landmark above the town on the way down. This would have meant no cup of tea and no beer while we waited for funicular. Think of that. Picturesque or what? This is the seven-millionth photo which has been taken of Halstatt from its suburb Lahn where there is a small patch of flat land.

As intimated, there is a lot to say about Halstatt, and we weren’t barbarians. We went to the museum and the art gallery and walked the streets noting the remarkable houses. We ate some fancy local variety of fish of which there are plenty in the lake. We ooed and ahhed (that’s more me really) at the evening cloud pour through the high valleys and down the cliff faces, and aahed and ooed at the inhabitants of the dozens of luxury buses pulling up at the Lahn bus station.

And then there was Krippenstein, the nearest high mountain, accessible by bus and cable car. This was our choice of the next day’s options — up to the top by these means and then walk back half way by what looked like a promising route. Krippenstein has a ‘nature’ walk to look at karst (a type of limestone) formations. That would have been good I’m sure. But they were everywhere. It was a bit nippier up the top with a brisk wind. And there were several ways down. But we went for the terrestrial, which was, as it turned out, full of remarkable scenery combined with a very enjoyable series of rock scrambles.

We have here i) a fine example of the subtlety of Austrian waymarking, and ii) a role model for the older woman.

And then, as they say, we went home.

Of the three options, the storm had knocked out two, which initially seemed a pity because we had planned to follow the Soleleitungsweg (‘the way of the brine’).

Signage warned with great vigour of attempting to do so. Rockfalls had broken the track. So we got the ferry across to the other side and strolled around through the joggers and picnickers enjoying their Sunday. I was reminded for some obscure reason of Böcklin’s ‘Isle of the Dead’.

This duck ‘followed us’ (can I say ‘a duck followed us’? Well it just did.) swimming full tilt for about a kilometre and a half, came towards the bank and then did nothing. I’d like to know what that meant.

It was raining steadily for the last couple of k.s into Bad Goisern, pleasant really, and we arrived back in the middle of some weekend fair/celebration/possibly normal Sunday behaviour. But the world was out in its lederhosen and dirndls, and the sound of an oompah band was floating through the streets. We found Maislinger’s packed to the gills with people who know a good feed when they see one (and at the same time are inclined to wear what they’ve shot) but managed to sneak a couple of seats and eat some of the best pork ever. Hear that? Ever. Were treated very kindly at our hotel, the Moserwirt, did some washing, slept soundly and got on the train next morning headed a little further east for something completely different.



Yes I know. London isn’t at the extreme end of eastern Europe. You’ll just have be patient. We’ll get there eventually.

We arrived on the day after the completion of the Games to a city suffused with euphoria, good will and self-satisfaction, where public services were efficient and well-practised and where Australia had just nudged past Kazakhstan in the medal count. The Russian team appeared to be using our hotel as a social centre; either that or they’d popped in to see Steve Bracks who was also staying there. The Mall and various other places were still fenced off, but otherwise London was lying back in welcome.

Amiable good humour seemed the order of the day.


And there were those sights which are completely and uniquely English. A smoke, a beer and a book …



Most of the special Olympic cultural things had finished, but we did get to the British Museum’s ‘Age of Shakespeare’ show, and what a show it was. Why seeing a first folio should move one I’m not sure, but one was moved. There were all sorts of bits and pieces included — such as portraits of Henry VIII and his various spice. [We read Henry VIII while we were away and decided, I did anyway, that it was a puff piece. It has a coronation procession in it, a very wordy and somewhat dull third act masquerading as a legal battle and a three-page speech sucking up to Elizabeth who of course was alive when the events the play describes occurred. So you’d want to be a bit cautious.] Also in attendance were Scottish bits and pieces for spell casting and good deal about Venice including this extraordinary Burano ewer from about 1600.

Some blokes were cleaning the dome over the Museum’s internal gallery, all new since we last were guests.


The Thames walk

Before we left I found myself wondering why we were putting ourselves through the pain associated with travelling in countries where we didn’t speak the language, & so many c.s. I found and read some guides to walking along the Thames from the Barrage to the spring it rises from in the Cotswolds. Sounded great, and so doable, so easy. Some months later I am now over the general problem of seeking pain-free travelling, but as an antidote to jetlag we did a couple of sections of this walk — in fact from Teddington to Hammersmith Bridge — and it was certainly one of the highlights of the trip.  It didn’t hurt at all that it was a beautiful day. Myrna was sure she saw Mole and Ratty as we wandered along through avenues and past grand houses. Teddington is an undistinguished slightly rural suburb not far from Hampton Court Palace, but we started somewhere near here.


We passed Eel Pie Island in whose eponymous studios nearby The Who made some of their greatest hits and lunched at the London Apprentice which has a long list of charming yarns, no doubt largely apochryphal, attached. Charles Dickens seems to have drunk in most pubs in London, but Henry VIII may well have dallied here with Jane Seymour, this being a convenient stopover on the watery way between palaces. He had taken Hampton Court from Wolsey by this time and it appears to have become a favourite residence. Whatever, the sandwiches were excellent.


When roads were rutty mud, the river was the highway from one grand house to the next and there was still plenty of evidence of this. Green sward or what? England generally had had a great volume of rain and it was deliciously evident.Image

And below is one of the Duke of Northumberlands’ (pl.) country houses; not quite in the country, not quite a house. Hardly beautiful. But I’m sure someone got some value out of it.


I was most taken by the engineering of the bridges as we passed them. This is a bit of the Tower Bridge which we didn’t pass on this occasion, but have a look how it is built. Suspension leaves around a rivetted box for stiffness with a gigantic hinge. The Chain Bridge in Budapest is built in a not dissimilar fashion (and was designed by a Scottish engineer).


Ok that was a digression. Point taken. Enough said.

The route took us through the locks and barge building/ maintenance works at Brentford, upping the quotient of the picturesque,


and buildings taking a leaf perhaps out of Roman polymorphism and layering. This is All Saints at Isleworth and it does have a remarkable history. (That material is strikingly interesting.) Most of the church was destroyed during WWII and the resultant architecture is perhaps remarkable like its history rather than beautiful like its location.


And finally to Hammersmith. This is looking back up the river. I note in passing the dozens of rowing clubs and sheds we passed over the 25 or so k.s. No wonder GB does well in rowing. I note also the fabulous Gainsborough sky.

The Saatchi Exhibition

The Saatchi Gallery is in the King’s Rd just west of Sloane Square. For decades now it has been renowned for leading trends in visual arts. Backed by advertising money of a very substantial order, more than I can imagine anyway, it makes its gifts and tastes available to the public for nothing. We left to go there fairly late on the number 11 bus which incorporates most of the sights of London but doesn’t really cut through the traffic. I was a bit tired and querulous when we got there — short of a cup of tea and a sit down — but the exhibits were simply stunning, actually worth a full day’s absorption. One floor contained frames lifted from Google’s great adventure of photographing the world for Google maps. So, a guy climbing out a window, a stag running through cars on a highway, the very recent aftermath of a car crash, an argument in the street, and so on. Life as it is lived.

Two floors were devoted to ‘Korean Eye’ which was Saatchi’s Olympic moment. Every ‘piece’ was somehow remarkable, out of the box, springing with intelligence and the most remarkable creativity. This, five metres high was called ‘Wood’. Or did you guess that?


Another example is this room full of fabulous pottery.

ImageSome translucent, all beautifully figured … and all made of soap and starting to slump slightly after four weeks of exhibition.

There was so much more. But in the basement is this permanent exhibit, one of the most remarkable pieces of art I have ever seen.

ImageFormidably hard to photograph successfully, it is a metre of sump oil (and smells like it) with almost perfect reflectivity coupled with these weird shadings of grey. Perfectly still, perfectly composed. There is a clue to its nature, otherwise not obvious, in the metre-deep slot cut into the ‘pond’ mid left. It is one of the most unarguably beautiful things I have ever seen.


And yes you can climb the shard (if you’ve got some work to do) …


become a figurehead …


(Hi Robin, who with Andre were fine companions in London.)

Or pat the Visible Man on the bum.


And all this before we’d even left something that had so many resonances of home. Considerably more was to come.