GATED COMMUNITIES

DSC00351It doesn’t look like much. A bit tinny in fact. Rendered cement block pillars with concrete cappings and a gate made out of slender hollow aluminium extrusions with spear points I suppose for the joy of it. All it says is don’t come in. The sign notes that this is the entrance to houses 12-13-14 only, so you can’t get in to the whole place that way, the whole 14 houses, properties more correctly, that are tucked in behind this fence and this gate in the expensive part of Toowoomba.

It doesn’t look like much, but for whatever reason it ruffled my feathers. What was in there that needed this sort of protection? Gold? Jewels? State secrets? Julian Assange? Does the pizza delivery boy have a key I wondered, to save the nuisance of answering the gate call?  And what about the drivers of ambulances and fire trucks, cops for that matter if they’re ever needed? Maybe gated communities don’t have emergencies.

But then as fences and gates go this one wasn’t much more than a gesture. The real question for me at the time was just who, in assertively egalitarian Queensland, did the occupants think they were? What flag were they waving at me?

                  Before I built a wall I’d ask to know/ What I was walling in or walling out,

                  And to whom I was like to give offense./ Something there is that doesn’t love  a wall,

                  That wants it down. …

The emboldened print in the real estate ads suggest that the idea of a gated community is a big  drawcard. According to the 2009 census more than 10 percent of the occupied houses in the US at that time were in gated communities, a 53 percent rise from 2001. In the south and west of the country this figure was as high as 40 percent. Many of these communities are in what Joel Garreau calls ‘Edge Cities’, the new developments on the fringes of older cities, farmland become ‘technoburbs’, where the shopping malls, the office tower blocks, the corporation headquarters are, and where their inhabitants live in new gated communities. Some time ago Garreau pointed out that there were 190 ‘Edge Cities’ larger than Orlando (the City Beautiful, a fairly random benchmark) in the US; but only forty downtowns the size of Orlando.

But what do we discover about how these communities operate? In the wealthiest ones domestic workers are the main source of activity during the day. (A fascination of mine. It’s tradies, cleaners, gardeners and pool boys who wallow in this luxury as a rule.) Studies have confirmed that in general, gated communities in the US constitute dormitory towns for their inhabitants. Most daily activities – work, leisure, study, or purchasing activities – happen elsewhere.

In a bitter critique of this development, Tom Vanderbilt says ‘Edge City is fundamentally hostile to community. … It is aggressively designed to keep others out. … What Edge City boils down to is not only an economic and cultural distancing from people of a different race and class, but a purposeful withdrawal from involvement in and responsibility for the greater politic of the city.’ He cites as an example Atlanta Edge City coalition ‘where 75 chief executive officers of major firms joined together to substitute for and supplement governmental actions affecting quality of life … funding equipment needs for mall policing, providing improved roadway access, support for the public high school, marketing the community through an annual guide book….’ Hardly malicious or illegal; just a narrow definition of the body politic. Liberté, perhaps egalité, but fraternité only with folks like us.

‘What are you doing round here?’ is the last confirmed recorded comment made by George Zimmerman, volunteer neighbourhood watchman for Twin Lakes gated community in Florida, before he shot dead Trayvon Williams, a 17 year-old black teenager who was staying with a friend who lived at Twin Lakes.

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Gated communities can be larger and more autistic.

La Rouvière on the outskirts of Marseille consists of seven giant buildings comprising 2,200 dwellings with a population of about 9,000. It was built originally to house settlers (colons) returning from Algeria in the 60s and 70s and, with its internal shopping, schools and leisure facilities, could be called self-contained. Its gates are closed at night.

As real estate agents say, it has been tightly held. Operating exactly like an engorged body corporate, its management monitors the background of any prospective new buyers. Its boss is quoted as saying, ‘New residents all belong to the same class (white, lower middle class) … Immigrants know they will not be welcome. That is the case and it’s a very good thing.’ There is a consensus among its populace that people who live there are courteous and there are no delinquents. There is certainly no graffiti. About half the votes cast in its polling booths at the last election were for the Marine Le Pen’s Front National, but you can’t leap to judgment. Courtesy, hard-working youth, clean streets … who’s complaining? And I think the La Rouverians would draw a causal connection with their vigilance.

However as the Syrian (and North African) refugee crisis sweeps through Turkey, Greece, Italy and into various parts of Europe where are the fences and gates to be erected? They’re going somewhere, these several million people. They don’t simply evaporate. For those with longer views these are the tidal surges of history. One of the more recent was in 1938 with a different crew involved. A solution was proposed and enacted.

And what is this doing to the grand vision of a comparatively borderless Europe embodied in the European Union? A great deal is the answer. Yanis Varoufakis, the former Minister of Finance in Greece’s Syriza government has written a new book And the weak suffer what they must? It draws a picture of how the governments which produced and insisted on the Sisyphean solutions to Greek’s economic crisis are now being populated by anti-semite and anti-refugee xenophobes. He believes that the far right has achieved a position of being ‘in power if not in office’ in many of these countries. Today’s headline in The Guardian: ‘Austria’s lurch to the right shocks EU’.

Fear of the other (Muslim or infidel, Jew or Palestinian, and so on in very long list) is meat and drink for authoritarian/ nationalistic political movements. These are apparently not times for generosity of spirit. That’s for fools.

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And they can be larger again.

Gating of a residential areas is a very old phenomenon, and may have had always had similar bases — the primary one being to keep unwanted people out.

It was a way, for example, to assist the aristocracy with managing riotous behavior as well as the various plagues which ran through the locals. But on a larger scale the idea was that security would be enhanced by protective walls.

wall-cloudsWhether even this one, all 21,000km of it, worked is moot. Around 1600 the wall did its job for 40 years. But in 1644 the Manchus (the northerners of primary concern) overran the Shun and Ming overlords via the gates at the Shanhai Pass. With or without a gate, a wall will inevitably present challenging problems, but a gate will always be a weakness. Despite its triple-decker walls and fortifications which are impressive even today, Constantinople fell in 1453 because someone left a postern gate open.

And there’s this one.

images-1In 1992, the idea of creating a physical barrier between the Israeli and West Bank Palestinian populations was proposed by then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, following the murder of an Israeli teenage girl in Jerusalem. Currently more than 500km of the barrier has been completed. Another 212km is planned. The impact on the occupants of the area, especially the Palestinians, has been profound. One fairly sober account of that impact can be found here.

IsraeliFenceWall2011Banksy-Israel-Wall-620x350Palestinian boy climbs through opening in barrier in Shuafat

And Donald Trump wants to build a wall, I beg your pardon, he insists that Mexico build a wall along the border between that country and the US. That border is around 3,200km long. In his defence there is already, at the behest of the US Senate, some sort of fencing for 1,125 km of that distance at a cost of USD2.4 billion.

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‘The gated community is nothing but the legitimate and natural response of a people who through hard work and enterprise have come to the point in their life when they can give themselves and their children a quality of life the state is unable to offer.’

— Indian businessman/ property developer Rohit Gore, responding to a journalist’s question in Mumbai.

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‘So pervasive has neoliberalism become that we seldom even recognise it as an ideology. We appear to accept the proposition that this utopian, millenarian faith describes a neutral force; a kind of biological law, like Darwin’s theory of evolution. But the philosophy arose as a conscious attempt to reshape human life and shift the locus of power.

‘Neoliberalism sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. It redefines citizens as consumers, whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling, a process that rewards merit and punishes inefficiency. It maintains that “the market” delivers benefits that could never be achieved by planning.

‘Attempts to limit competition are treated as inimical to liberty. Tax and regulation should be minimised, public services should be privatised. The organisation of labour and collective bargaining by trade unions are portrayed as market distortions that impede the formation of a natural hierarchy of winners and losers. Inequality is recast as virtuous: a reward for utility and a generator of wealth, which trickles down to enrich everyone. Efforts to create a more equal society are both counter-productive and morally corrosive. The market ensures that everyone gets what they deserve. 

‘We internalise and reproduce its creeds. The rich persuade themselves that they acquired their wealth through merit, ignoring the advantages – such as education, inheritance and class – that may have helped to secure it. The poor begin to blame themselves for their failures, even when they can do little to change their circumstances.

‘Never mind structural unemployment: if you don’t have a job it’s because you are unenterprising. Never mind the impossible costs of housing: if your credit card is maxed out, you’re feckless and improvident. Never mind that your children no longer have a school playing field: if they get fat, it’s your fault. In a world governed by competition, those who fall behind become defined and self-defined as losers.’

 — George Monbiot, The Zombie Doctrine (read it all, and you should, right here)

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The gated community at Toowoomba that sparked these reflections is innocent and trivial in this world of comparisons. But what reinforced the strength of these feelings was something else I wrote about in the blog on the Darling Downs: the massive shift towards the privatisation of Australian schools. The really serious issue driven by the neoliberals of our current government — in whatever party — is the reallocation of public resources to the private sector: to ensure that there is a second suite of tennis courts, or a new arts and music centre, a new auditorium, a training pool, a campus in China leaving the residualised public schools — still educating two-thirds of the population — with minimal support for kids with special needs or for providing additional literacy support.

Because it is right here, absolutely on this point rather than anywhere else, that the cost to the community of exclusion (partial, symbolic, financial, themed, whatever) becomes most apparent and the issue most palpable.

First, you can run neoliberal arguments about entitlement related to adults if you must. But children (aged 5 for example!), ipso facto, are not in a position to control their development and thereby their destinies. They need help, support and direction — all of them, not just a select group.

Second, no country can afford to deliberately choose to have an ill-educated and disaffected sector within their community. The cost of that is appalling; and it is a cost to the whole community, everyone, in liveability if not in taxation. That vast cost is also only about remediation to some sort of maintenance level; it is not investment in growth and development. We don’t get that much out of the AUD2.6billion we spend annually on keeping people in prison, a very high proportion of whom are illiterate or close to. AND, suggestive of the presence of this problem right now, the reason Australia’s international test scores are as bad as they are is because of the extraordinary spread of performance. The bottom end has a long tail. It’s that mob outside the gates talking back.

And then there is the question of walling out or being walled in?

When I went to university I lived in a boarding college which had a preponderance of graduates from private schools, some of my closest friends today in fact. But I also had friends among the private school boyos, many of whom are now highly placed in the professions and commerce. Unless they were good at sport, high school boys puzzled them in so far as they thought about them at all. High school boys were never likely to understand the exigencies of life because they hadn’t been inducted into a lifestyle where the one certainty, beyond the existence of hierarchies in which everyone had a place, was that they belonged to a group that was different, better and therefore entitled. In so far as they thought about high schools girls, they were probably sluts, and that was that. Resolved. Simple.

There’s a lot missing from that picture and not just as I have sketched it. My point: the personal cost of having such a distorted and cavalier view of the world from this sort of ‘gated’ and socially-ordered perspective is profound. Walled in, you miss so much.

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At Kłodzko in southern Poland I remember looking in wonder at the fort which dominated the town with its layers and layers of fortifications, accretions from 1300 until the second world war, and being forcefully struck by the resultant sense of enclosure and imprisonment — walled in. And like the invisible darkness full of the unknown around the corner in a horror film, a source of terror.

For those who were away the day Romania was done

I got an email the other day, a while ago now, asking me to explain where Romania was because my correspondent couldn’t work out the screen shot in a previous post. I thought this might present an opportunity to stick in some bits and pieces that don’t obviously go anywhere else and to answer some questions. Geography. Okay. There. That’s Romania. Bordered to the north by the Ukraine and Moldova (now there’s another new (but actually very old) one for you), to the west by Hungary and to the south by Serbia and Bulgaria. After providing the southern border, the Danube turns sharply north at Silistra and drains through a vast marshy delta into the Black Sea. There is a sprawl of seaside resorts down this coast which continue all the way to Turkey and beyond. The Carpathians curl across its north and down through its centre leaving the Pannonian Plain to the west, and to the east the coastal plain which is part of the steppelands which finish somewhere near Siberia. It is almost exactly the same size as Victoria but a lot harder to get around. This is where we went. Maramures is a region not a city.

The people. I took this photo not just because the ice cream was good, which it was, but because this charming Romanian at Sighisoara seemed to suggest a much more widespread physical type: smooth olive skin, neatly defined features, warm brown eyes, slender, sometimes tall but generally not. I don’t know whether you are allowed to talk about physical types; probably not. But at Brasov (‘brush-off’) I had this sense of being surrounded in the Square on a party night by hundreds of very good looking people with similar features.

At left Mircea Eliade, the great Romanian philosopher and writer. Ionescu fits. Even Ceaușescu, at right, at a pinch.

History. Romania doesn’t get its name from the many Romany (‘gypsies’) who live there. That’s a story for another day. It gets its name from its inhabitants’ desire to be clear that they are ‘citizens of Rome’, and in fact one of the very last remnants of that classical empire. But both Herodotus and Thucydides are clear that the people who originally lived between the Danube and the Tisa were Dacians (not to be confused with Thracians who lived where contemporary Bulgaria is).

In the second millennium of the Christian era, this was part of the Ottoman empire, the dominant ‘international’ political influence of at least half that period. It wasn’t a heartland of the empire in the way that the western Balkans and Greece were, and in fact when Mehmet II was at his peak so was Vlad Tepes, (‘tsepesh’ if you care, also ‘The Impaler’) providing constant interference and harassment from the northern provinces of Wallachia, much of today’s Romania, and Moldova. (Vlad had a son called Mihnea ‘the Bad’. If you were his dad wouldn’t that set you back? It would me. But in the circumstances, it may have been his father who coined the tag.)

I have found the vestiges of the Ottoman empire irresistible, and its story bears greatly on this whole area. So, indulge me a few glimpses.

I must have been away the day the Ottomans were done, an empire that lasted 600 years, possibly about 10 times longer than the international dominance of the US of A. (The Persian Empire wasn’t covered in great detail either as I remember. As for Ashoka … well! The new National Curriculum will resolve these problems I am sure.)

The Ottomans emerged from nowhere if that’s what we can call the Anatolian foothills. No city, great or small; just raggle taggle bands of nomads who got a taste for real estate which eventually extended from the Persian Gulf to the walls of Vienna and from North Africa to the Crimean peninsula and beyond. This was the Abode of Peace, Dar ul-Islam, and areas outside it Dar ul-Harb, the Abode of War.

Although this expansion had been going on for a century or more, the first recorded battle is a giant landmark in Balkan history which remains a bitter and provocative memory today. On 15 June 1389 they destroyed the Serb forces at Kosovo on the Blackbird Field and swept north. Their ‘capital’ was Bursa south of where Istanbul is today near the shore of the Marmara Sea, and their playground for hunting and leisure was Edirne now on the border of Turkey and Bulgaria where our bus was stripped and our luggage searched at 1.30 in the morning before we were sent on our way. At its height its armies were assembled each year on 23rd April, St George’s Day (how odd that the patron saint of both England and the Ottomans was St George, and that both versions are depicted, as we saw in Cappadocia, slaying a dragon), and the season of conquest — north, south, east or west, whatever had been chosen — would begin. After six months or so, for 200 years, these armies which often included the sultan would return fat with the spoils which would make them temporarily rich and new tax regimes which made them rich for a great deal longer.

The Ottomans won (for several hundred years, invariably) because they had cannons and because they were organized. Theirs were the first armies in the world to have uniforms, to be paid timar, a regular stipend, and to have a band playing to egg on the warriors. (We heard what such a band would sound like in the 1453 Museum in Istanbul and it would have been suitably terrifying.) The shock troops were janissaries, a quite particular form of levy. Every three years towns, especially in the Balkans and Greece but more widely spread as well, would be visited by a representative of the empire to select the finest Christian youths — the fittest, the strongest, the best looking, the power forward match-winners (in a localised football note, think Carey, Brereton, Brown, Ablett snr.) — to serve the Sultan in a complicated form of slavery. They were taught Turkish, fed, housed, educated and trained and never allowed to marry. This semi-desirable situation was not available to Turkish Ottomans because Muslims could never be slaves.

Here we see Kemal Ataturk, hero of modern Turkey and its President for 15 years, in a janissary uniform.I can’t help you with why. The remarkable head gear is said to be shaped like a sleeve of the gown worn by the founder of the Dervish order.  Its name, ketche, can be literally translated as ‘felt’. It was worn by all janissaries without exception.

The janissaries became soldiers, and those who displayed particular aptitude for study became kapikullari, the bureaucrats who provided the empire with its strength. The CEO of the empire was the Grand Vizier who walked the finest of lines between being all powerful and subject to strangulation by the Sultan’s bowstring (among the jobs of the Head Gardener). Of the 36 Grand Viziers who followed the Sultanate of Mehmet II, 34 were not Muslim born and several were Jews. The Grand Vizier who caused the building of the bridge over the Drina, Sokolovic, was doing his Serbian home town a favour. (For a visual sample of the area and an aural sample of the book click here.)

The Ottomans were comparatively benign rulers. At left is a copy of the edict of Mehmet II guaranteeing religious freedom to Bosnia in 1458 for example, which enabled Bosnia to survive as such an unusual amalgam of Muslim Turk (or Bosniak), Catholic Croat and Orthodox Serb, for as long as it did. (Digressing, Ottoman script is truly remarkable as this close up of a ‘deed’ describing the towns and villages to be administered by one pasha illustrates. One story says that it derives from the illiterate Osman’s signature, inking his fingers and swirling them across the page.)

The Ottomans didn’t interfere much with local culture or language. As a rule, new, or old, subjects were not required to become Muslim. A rough but comparatively consistent form of justice was instituted. They weren’t traders; that was left to the Armenians who built their own niche in the empire’s workings. They were rentiers, and the rent was, for the times, fair. The real violence was kept for the palace and its inhabitants.

Sultans were lineal descendants of the House of Osman and, for the first few centuries at least, when a Sultan was near death or died, fratricide was the standard and accepted practice. The son who got in first and organized the killing of his siblings (often half siblings considering that at its peak the Sultan’s seraglio had around 4000 women) would ascend to the throne. As with many of the royal houses of Europe this did not produce an especially healthy lineage.

The taking of Constantinople (from the remnant members of the Byzantine Empire) was a high point in Ottoman history, not least because it united ‘the two halves of the world’. It’s a story too long to be told here, but it includes the portage of dozens of large vessels over Pera (where we stayed in Istanbul) to be refloated behind the giant chain which cut off access by water to the Golden Horn. Ten metre long brass cannon which could fire shot weighing ¾ of tonne moved by carts pulled by 30 bullocks and attended by 700 men damaged the walls. Mehmet had an army of what may have been 300,000 men, but even so was constantly being counseled that this was inadequate to defeat the fortifications defending the 4,983 (names recorded) inhabitants capable of bearing arms. The deep defensive ditches (correctly, fosses) between the double walls were filled with the bodies of the dead so that other forces could cross them. But in the end it appears that the Ottomans won simply because someone from inside left a postern gate, the tiny hidden entrances used to nip in and out while a siege was in progress, open. The failed siege of Vienna 150 years later where the Ottomans were defeated by what we now call an extreme weather event is an equally dramatic tale.

Albanians were still paying tribute to Turkey in the 20th century, still sending delegates to a parliament which had become a shell game with no pea.

This is the empire described by Tsar Nicholas II as ‘the sick man of Europe’, a phrase which has delighted sub editors ever since. The bigger it got, the more flaccid it became. It never seemed to learn that there were other sources of wealth besides plunder; and when the plunder dried up, the cost of the war machine broke the country. Among other infamies, the janissaries began charging ‘tooth rent’, a cost to food suppliers generated by the act of eating, and famously revolted  before being disbanded.

One of the Sayings of the Prophet that had strong currency in the Empire was: ‘Every novelty is an innovation. Every innovation is an error. Every error leads to hellfire.’ Time was thought to be circular rather than linear. Evliya Celebi (at left), a janissary who among many many other things wrote, describes himself looting the same house he looted one year previously and looking for and finding the hatchet he had left there, a small proof of the ubiquity of eternity. Great empires become encrusted with a thousand types of cosmopolitanism, all too digestible when the direction is strong and the leadership inviolate. But when the order changes what is left is a potpourri of romance and memories.

After that modest digression, back to Romania — Food. Superb. Delicious. Wonderful. Here’s a portion of what the Intrepid trip notes had to say about food: ‘Vegetarians might find the menu selection less varied than they would see at home. Vegetarianism is not as common in this region and generally the choices are basic, involving vegetables and fried cheese. Vegans will find it even more challenging. Vegetarians might choose to supplement meals with supplies bought from home, e.g. protein bars, dried fruits and so on.’ Not so.

A full tilt Romanian evening meal is likely to consist of soup (phonetically ‘chorb’ or ‘chorb-uh’ everywhere in the eastern Balkans and Turkey) often vegetal, salad (anything up to 10 or 12 on a restaurant menu, variations on a theme, with shepherd’s salad the heartiest with corn, cheese and nuts), stew (the Hungarians do not have a mortgage on goulash), cake and fruit. Polenta in various forms appeared as an option at most meals. Cheese was a staple. At one hotel where we had breakfast I counted 14 different types. Snacks come out of the street windows: a score of different types of pretzels, and layers of filo, rolled or flat, filled with cheese or fruit. Shops selling gyros (the meat we get in souvlaki) were everywhere. Breakfast was bread (often home made), hard and soft cheese, excellent yoghurt, tomatoes and peppers — and when I say tomatoes and peppers, I mean tomatoes and peppers straight out of the garden such as you have never tasted. Four of our five local guides commented on the exodus of young people from country regions. Each of them, remarkably, used the image of there being no one left to tend the tomatoes to describe the calamity that was in the offing.

It is true that we were there at the height, or just after, of the harvest; but what we ate was food rather than salt, sugar and fat. Here are the highly photogenic Mat and Luz eating in a hotel in Velika Tarnovo (Bulgaria actually), the sort of meal we could have had although from memory I think I had a cheese omelette and Myrna a salad at the same table. What you are looking at is a ‘sache’ (that mysterious English word) of roast vegetables, another of pieces of pork, some bread which has been on the griddle and some polenta.

Accommodation. Great. Clever. Very well located 3-star hotel accommodation, very clean, very comfortable, everywhere with wifi internet connection. Three ‘homestays’, which could be better described as very good quality bed and breakfast places; not, definitely not, sleeping on straw palliasses being nudged by donkeys. At right Myrna is on the stairs of the one we stayed in at Sighitu, and yes that is a Jag in the driveway. To the considerable amusement of all those not concerned, Chris and Joop did have drawer beds in Viscri. Our room had an ensuite and a gorgeous ceramic stove just in case the weather turned cold which, of course, it never did. Why did I become interested in eastern Europe? I’ve been wondering that myself. It could have been getting excited about Balkan music after watching Emir Kusturica’s film ‘Underground’. It was so gay, so crazy, such a exhilarating mixture of east and west. And that’s an interest I’ve pursued. But it might have been reading Neal Ascherson’s book The Black Sea, a masterpiece, which introduced me to the Samartians, the Scythians and the Pechenegs and the prospect of ecological catastrophe if the Black Sea turns itself upside down (which is all too possible). I also think it introduced me to the idea of the Saxon villages in Transylvania which ever since I have wanted to see. And then during the troubles in the mid-90s I was reading Robert Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts and Ian Malcolm’s Bosnia: A Short History and Rebecca West’s Black Lamb Grey Falcon. All these are from a genre of writing which attracts me greatly: going somewhere and thinking out loud about what it means (another master, the Pole Ryszard Kapuściński).

More recently I’ve read Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Between the Woods and the Water. An 18 year-old Englishman determines to walk from Amsterdam to Istanbul and has adventures on the way. A Time of Gifts, devoted to the first section of the walk is not as good, but once he crosses the Danube at Esztergom, in Hungary but on the Slovak border (in 1934), the story just gets so interesting and the language begins to sing. As well as being a war hero, a boxer, a horseman, the lover of a Romanian princess and an historian, Leigh Fermor is a stylish magician with the English language.

There is a story attached. Not only did he write this book in his 70s, five decades after the experiences he describes, but he left all his notes at a Romanian country house he was staying at in the 1950s. They were miraculously recovered 25 years later.

This book sits with Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana, Eric Newby’s A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush and maybe Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia (a bit disappointing on a recent read) on a list of the great contemporary travel books ever written. There is vivid curiosity, exuberance and joy, all great human qualities, in each of these books, all that I have mentioned in fact.

Was our trip anything like these adventures? Of course not. We were cosseted middle-aged tourists, and anyway the world has changed so very much. But still, there were times when the fragrance of these experiences of travel could still, just, be sniffed in the air. Now where were we? Ah yes. Three favourites.

Sorry sorry pak. Stuck in traffic.

NOTED

There was plenty of opportunity to observe Colonel Harlan Sanders in both face and figur(ine) in Indonesia. He looks like he’s dropped a lot of weight. Maybe 10 or 15 kilos! He could have diabetes and be looking after himself, or could have just sworn off the product. Or it could be a purely local phenomenon in a land not noted for its fatties. Worthy of further investigation.

ERRATUM

I’ve been calling Joop, Jope. Profuse apologies.

ADDENDA

1) A significant omission in my description of the Merry Cemetery is that the texts on the headmarkers are in the first person: ‘I loved my car so much …’, ‘I couldn’t choose between two men …’, ‘We were hunting in the forest when …’, and , of course, ‘Here I lie …’. You will agree that this makes all the difference.

2) Re ‘Language’. On the way home in the plane I read in ‘The Guardian’ that the issue of whether or not to teach grammar to second language learners has finally been resolved (by the customary new meta analysis of research). You need to. And also chocolate cures cancer. This is one of these issues like genes or heredity, free market versus regulation, god or the void that just bleeds dispute which is both trite and tedious. I found the following small contribution in Diego Marani’s New Finnish Grammar. ‘The rule always succeeds the word; this is the great weakness of all grammar. The rule is not order, it is just a description of some form of disorder. … A language’s prescriptive baggage comes into being less to facilitate its comprehension, that to prevent foreigners’ access to it.’

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.

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 …

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.