Pest is the best.

October 31st, 2008

I never quite counted Slovenia as proper ex-Iron Curtain eastern Europe. Sure, it was part of Tito’s fun park for many years, but it lacked that certain blockhouse ambiance I was seeking. But arriving in Budapest station I detected a whiff of post-imperium residue hanging in the air like steam from a bowl of goulash. I traded my euros for forints from one of the cashed up black market moneychangers loitering near the platforms. A woman spruiking on the train as we approached the capital had offered us the same place we had decided to stay anyway, but with a free minibus ride thrown in. She had made some dire warnings about the shortage of accommodation in the city due to the F1 grand prix, that I had no way of ascertaining if it was true (it was). I tend to go on the assumption that anything that comes out of the mouth of a tout is most probably a lie, and Karina haggled her down on price as she does. Vanless, this was to be our lot from now on.

The minibus was an hour late, and the driver appeared to get lost on the way as we passed the same intersection for a second time and made a couple of spontaneous u-turns. We had booked into a place in Buda, on the hilly west bank of the mighty Danube, and copped our first look at the river and the city with it’s night lights twinkling on as we crossed one of the three bridges that span it. By the time the Danube arcs through the city I’d reckon it’s almost a kilometer wide in parts, flowing at a fair rate of knots, and a turgid brown instead of a Straussy blue. The hotel turned out to be a towerblock near the summit of a hill, a university building that was whoring out it’s student dorms during the summer for tourist cash. Our east-facing window on the tenth floor had to be one of the best views of the city, with the city, the citadelle, and a giant statue of what looked like an angel catching a frisbee all lit up. We dropped of our hefty packs, and wandered out and back down the steep hill looking for some hunnish action. The street seemed fairly quiet, and we learned later that there are only two zones in the city that support substantial nightlife. The only place selling food was a country and western theme bar, but the beer was cheap and the chicken wings came with paprika.

The next day we wandered across the bridge to Pest, and up the main shopping street. I wanted to find a Lonely Planet on Eastern Europe, but either by will or luck no store carried it, so I had to pay over the odds for their Europe guide. Now Europe has 48 countries so it doesn’t get into a great level of detail on any particular one, especially not the ones we were planning to go. I have mixed feelings about Lonely Planet, and try and use the internet, maps and whimsy instead to plan my journey, as they are so ubiquitous they sort of create their own busy backpacker web that distorts things around it. However it does have one thing that other pretenders lack, and that’s good city maps with budget accommodation listed. If you’re carrying a heavy pack and have arrived at an unseemly hour at some train terminal, they definitely pay their own way or at least give you a point of comparison if you head off the page. And in those traveling hours on trains or in hotel rooms, I’ve read each one cover to cover, from the authors’ ‘zany’ bios to their ads for their website. The Europe guide allowed me to read about bus timetables in Moldova and their pick for best bakery in Reykjavik.

The huns (i use the term but they’re no more related to Atilla and his merry horde than Paris Hilton, and more people have seen her axe wound) are great ones to have a soak, so we went out on their spacious metro train to some pleasant parkland in the midday sun where a huge Rococo bathing complex was. We were ushered to our own changing cubicle by some white uniformed staff that looked like they were working in a soviet mental asylum, and wandered through vaulted halls past marble spas of differing temperatures. Emerging into a huge walled courtyard, we had the pick of three large heated lakes replete with fountains and jets, and joined the many local Budapestians floating contentedly or reclining on the boardwalks and lounges.  After a couple of hours of acting like a new potato, I opted for one of the massage treatments on offer.  Following an old fashion ticketing system, the woman masseuse when my turn came wouldn’t have looked out of place as a bond villain. She ushered me into a steamy cubicle, complaining that the fan was broken and that she should not have to work like this. I’m not sure what school it was, but what followed was one of the most brutal massages I’d ever received. The next day my calves ached from the pounding they were given. Instead of Celtic whalesong muzak, the ambiance was provided by a yelled argument with the woman masseuse in the next cubicle that flared up throughout the half hour.

After a last recovery soak we caught a tram back and across the bridge near the base of the Buda citadelle. As we neared the gate, our path rose as steeply as the beer prices, but we came across a cafe on the castle walls with such a lovely vantage point that we couldn’t resist a sit down. A gypsy three-piece of violin, double bass and harpsichord came and serenaded us in quiet a romantic moment, broken when the violinist started putting the hard sell on Karina to buy one of his family CD’s of cheesy covers. We went down for dinner that night to a long street of restaurants and bars, and ended up yaking for hours to a retired couple from Illinois who were following the F1 grand prix around Europe. The next day we had a late train to catch, so we dropped our bags off at the station lockers than went for a long walk on a hot day ending in some parkland with a stately home and lake. While we lazed on the lakeshore some bloke’s youngster fell into the lake and floundered, before being rescued by a helpful stranger. I was in such a lazy funk lying on the grassy bank that my only reaction was to prod karina awake to point it out.

"Knight to K4. Check"   "Don't call me Czech, I was born here" - Blokes playing chess in park on hot day

"Knight to K4. Check" "Don't call me Czech, I was born here" - Blokes playing chess in park on hot day

Bridge over danube - Blue, i hear you ask?

Bridge over danube - Blue, i hear you ask?

Downtown Pest - the shopping heart. more bookstores than Mcdonalds with is a nice change

Downtown Pest - the shopping heart. more bookstores than Mcdonalds which is a nice change

Karina in buadapest metro - I pissed my pants to give it that london feel

Karina in buadapest metro - I pissed my pants to give it that london feel

View from Buda Citadelle, towards Pest on the other bank of the Danube

View from Buda Citadelle, towards Pest on the other bank of the Danube

Gypsy fiddler - would you like to buy some CD's?

Gypsy fiddler - would you like to buy some CD's?

Al in front of hungary national monument,  a triumphant memorial to all the surrounding people they've slaughtered

Al in front of hungary national monument, a triumphant memorial to all the surrounding people they've slaughtered

The basement tapes

October 13th, 2008

Emerging from the tunnel into sensible, affluent Austria the motorway floated down over the fields on raised concrete pillars. Southern Austria has a more gentle landscape of rolling hills and lakes. We skirted the southern shore of the Worthersee, that I thought merited a look. Cyclists, joggers, and walkers were out in force, wearing their understated earth tones and pedometers. Wrapping around to the Northeasten corner of the lake, we stopped and pooled our euro realising we had exactly enough for a beer and a sandwich each to the cent. After that we headed out onto the motorway that snaked it’s was through the hills to Graz.

Graz is a pretty, mid-size Austrian town set on a river. Its famed for producing the condom stuffed with walnuts, as Clive James puts it, the governator Arnold Schwarzenegger, though a local we got chatty with told us he doesn’t want a bar of the town anymore after they went to the trouble of naming the footy stadium after him. We found a nice central spot to park and wandered the pedestrianised centre. Some French architect had build a bubblelike building of glass and honeycombed steel and plonked it mid stream in the river, and we went there for a pricey beer and to watch the uninviting water flow past. We then walked back past the funicular through the lanes of the old city, where we stopped for some sausage as night fell. Sated (15 is my limit on schnitzengruben), we retired to the van and manged to wake up ahead of the parking inspectors.

Al in front of Murinsel bubble cafe in Graz

Continuing north we headed for Vienna. The motorway was particularly uninteresting on this long stretch of tarmac, belting out monotonously across the plains. I’ve been to Austria a few times before, but always to ski so I was looking forward to seeing the coffee shops and east-meets-west ambiance of Vienna. As usual, my mind was warped by repeated viewings of The Third man, and the traffic filled reality didn’t instantly press it’s charms upon me. We drove aimlessly around the centre at a crawl, but after eight hours behind the wheel I just wanted to layabout so we followed a bus/tram lined road to the western edge of town and the Vienne-Ost camping ground.

Checking the emails again it seemed that a bloke from Glastonbury was genuinely keen on the van, god knows why, and was prepared to fly out to buy it. I gave him a ring to calm his nerves and dance around the topic of the van’s condition. I told him about the missing exhaust, but thought I’d have one last crack at fixing the speedo so didn’t mention this. He was prepared to pay our asking price, but could only fly to Salzburg. about 500 clicks to the west. I agreed, figuring even if wasn’t as good as he reckoned, he’d have to be fairly committed to buying once he got here.

This was an excellent piece of news, giving us a nice cash boost and somewhat vindicating our decision not just to buy the van, but also to skip town on the mechanic in the Pyrenees two months ago before he could have our engine out. However, we’d also grown attached to our brown van and I still wonder if it would have made it all the way to Australia. Probably not.

We had a few days of sunning ourselves in the campground before having to go. We had a last sentimental ride on our bikes, which we ‘d included in the deal. I’ve had 5 bikes stolen in thieving London, but this had been the best one I’d pedaled. But the shipping costs were more than it’s secondhand value. We’d be vanless soon, with only what we could carry on our backs, so we rationalised our gear, sent a couple of boxes of stuff off, then went for a overdue haircut. Bequiffed, we had an afternoon beer in a beer garden attached inspiredly to a psychiatric hospital, and watched the patients pair off and quiz each with clipboards on the grounds. We figured they were more likely mild depressives or bratwurst fearers then the rock back and forth in your own filth type of psychiatric patients.

The next morning, I set about trying to fix the speedometer. The Haines manual devoted a cursory two paragraphs to it, with a photo from a different model van. After poking around again under the dashboard to no avail, i tried to trace the cable to the left front wheel. To get a proper look at it, I would have had to disassemble the wheel housing, something I lacked the tools or the time to do, but I did notice on the photo of the termination of the the cable under the hubcap, there appeared to be a little circlip that mine lacked. It was worth a shot, and after driving to about seven dealers and mechanics, I found one that specialised in older model VW’s. The chief mechanic, after making some jokes in german to his laughing crew as I stood there giving him my best stare of contemptuous indifference, finally wandered to the storerooms and through me a  tiny c-clip on his return. Outside in the street, I fitted it and with only moderate hopes gunned the van out into the street. Success! for the first time since the outskirts of London months ago, the needle bounced into life and the odometer resumed its rolling on 99,000 km. It seemed like a small thing, the van seldom threaten to break any speeding laws, but I reckon not having a speedo would have put a lot of buyers off.

We headed out to Salzberg on the van’s last voyage with mixed emotions. I was glad that we’d found a buyer and stood to recover a hunk of cash that standing by the van in the mechanics forecourt in the Pyrenees had seemed unlikely. But we had grown quite fond of our little home, of cooking breakfasts as storms raged against the windows, or waking up to the sound of gulls next to the Atlantic. From now on we we would be at the mercy of train and bus schedules, of hotels and hostels, of leaving backpacks in station lockers and lobbies. And a small amount of anxiety was mixed in as well, that the van not breakdown as the sale was within our grasp. However this anxiety was forgotten quite quickly, as the stunning rugged mountain scenery of Salzkammergut took all our attention away. We passed one beautiful alpine lake, but couldn’t bring ourselves to drive past the second, and turned off at the Mondsee and parked by it’s shores. Swans herded there cygnets around on the grassy shore, and the craggy mountains were reflected on the lake’s still surface in the late afternoon light. After a refreshing beer we continued in the dark to Salzburg. Karina and I had come to this pretty old town before we married, enroute to skiing in the good Bad Gastein. It had been winter then, and snow had covered the town and overlooking castle, and we had wandered markets drinking hot gluwein past boutique store and overblown Mozart chocolate shops (I never understood the Mozart-Chocolate connection), joining the throngs of stately couples in fur coats.

This time we had a beer in a Irish pub next to the icy town river that because of a cookin’ guitar duo playing there became several. I was woken up at some evil hour of the morning by a policeman banging on the window. Dressing, and holding back the urge to throw my voice, I found the road I’d parked in had become a clearway with me blocking one lane of the early morning traffic. While Karina slept, I drove around looking for the airport, unintentionally seeing several different neighbourhoods of the town before stumbling across it and falling asleep in the Airport carpark. I was helpless without my GPS. We roused just before the buyer John’s flight had arrived and were having coffee when I saw a bloke who instinct told me was the one. He was with his 5 year old daughter, and seemed relieved that so far he hadnt completely wasted his time. I babbled a bit about the van, though I wasnt in a great selling mood owing to the hangover. He took a first inspection and immediately noticed more rust than I’d noticed myself, as well as the scratches and off-colour attempt at hiding them. I offered to drive first and explain the nuances of the van, but underneath I was afraid he’d get in and immediately start grinding the gears as is very easy to do, or the van would hiccup as it does sometimes deaccelerating sharply.  I said we were looking for the train station but the road signs took us to a freight station, and we became lost as we tried to navigate together. By the time we found the station he seemed happy that the van ran well and pulled out his wedge of cash without offering to drive first. We did the paperwork, wished him good luck on his intention to drive with his daughter straight back to England, then jumped on the first train to Vienna. Arriving, we stopped for a coffee at one of the overpriced yet lovely street cafes and Karina made me take out the cash from my bulging pocket that was making me look even happier than I was, and put the rolls of twenties somewhere safer.

We caught the afternoon EC train to Budapest, and as the train rolled over the wide Hungarian plains that lie south of the Danube, I was gently rocked into a happy daydream as I imagined how long this windfall would last us in a place like India.

Anything but slovenly

September 19th, 2008

Given that we were thinking about avoiding this country and plowing straight up north through the Dolomites to Austria, Slovenia was a revelation. Driving past the abandoned border post we immediately entered a green landscape of forested hills, bucolic farms, and villages that never threatened to break out into anything considered urban or squalid. This overload of pastoral pleasantness never let up for the entire length of the country. Now France has got a continents worth of wonders within l’hexagone, and Switzerland and Norway have large hunks of landscape where you can feel trapped inside a fairytale. But for above-averageness in all departments, I award the EuroVisionOfLoveliness award to {…drumroll…} Slovenia!

Lake Bled, Slovenia

We stopped for a friendly beer in a roadside cafe, and by early afternoon we were in the capital, Ljubljana. This is a gem of a town. Small enough to walk across in an hour yet bustling with outdoor cafes choc full of friendly, well-dressed (though karina reckons their chic is a bit dated) Slovenians drinking and chatting the evening away. Art noveau and baroque buildings line the river and inner squares, and a small castle looks out over the city from on high. We drifted around, having a beer here, a bite to eat there, though I almost poisoned myself with with a beer that turned out to taste like cordial. The next day we caught the funicular up to the castle on the hill. It had a gallery of naive jungle art and a hysterical video presentation about traditional weddings in the castle. We walked back through parkland to the centre, stopping in a palatial university library to steal some wifi and cool myself on their marble balustrades from the heat of the midday sun.

We set off north west, and from afar the mini swiss scenery of the Julian Alps and the peak of Mt Triglav rise up in anticipation. We were making for Bled, a town by an alpine lake in the dramatic corner of the country. But being a friday afternoon in summer, there were a few other people who had the same idea, and they combined with roadworks to drag us to a stand still. Our petrol was running low, and all the idling and crawling in traffic had the needle below the empty mark. We were running on fumes when we took the Bled exit from the highway, but our van got us to the petrol station in the end. With renewed vigour. We cruised down the slope to the lake.

If I set about designing a dramatic european landscape, I’d lack the art and ambition to come up with Bled. High forested bluffs and hills surround the languid deep green waters of this alpine lake. On one of the cliffs, a beautiful castle is plonked photogenicly. On a small island in the middle of the waters, a small church and bell tower looks suitably venerable. The modest town of Bled clings to one corner of the lake and has the airs of a french spa town. On the other side of the lake, a well kitted out campground nestles in a valley and it was here we spent a few days. The sun shone and under blue skies I swam in the deep cool waters of the lake while karina sunbaked on the shore. Later, we hired a row boat and explored the island and church, before paddling into the middle where we shed our clothes and dove off the boat. As we floated on our backs, the castle and mountains formed a fish-eye lens hemisphere of beauty.

The fate of the van had been playing on our minds. The further we went east and things became cheaper, the less the possible price we’d get upon selling. There was the chance of it developing further problems, and I already had doubts that an experienced dealer would offer us much for it. We decided Austria would be our best bet, both for it’s VW dealers and being the last affluent country in central europe. We ran an ad on the London Gumtree, and received 3 bites, one of which responded to my follow-ups.

From Bled, the quickest way to Austria was via a motorway tunnel. However, at the border the Slovenians stung us for 35 euro yearly motorway sticker for driving 10kms of tarmac. I’ll miss Slovenia, it’s beautiful green landscapes, it’s friendly people, and it’s 20p supermarket pivo beer.

Al’s book review time

September 14th, 2008

As a bonus round, I thought I’d say a few words about the books I’ve been reading whilst traveling.

The Book of Dave by Will Self

Strange yarn about some future post-flood London, where the society has based it’s religion on unearthed rantings of a cabbie named Dave. Swaps back now and then to the present day as Dave’s life falls apart. Has the fine eye for cyncism and personal bitterness that Self does well, as well as being a commentary on broader themes about London and religion. Quite enjoyed it.

Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Woolfe

Have been meaning to get around to reading this one, having read his journo books and seen the atrocious film adaption, and I found it a bloody good story. Cuts quite close to the bone at times, and evokes 80′s New York like no other book. Karina read it after me and also dug it.

Istanbul by Orhan Pamluk

Fairly self indulgent memoir about his childhood in Istanbul. He waffles on for several chapters about the precise characteristics of turkish melancholy until I started feeling it myself, but his recollections about other writers and artists kept the interest level just above my tedium threshold to finish it.

The Third Chimpanzee by Jarod Diamond

Now Diamond is a bloke I think had one big idea to say, which he did very well in his Guns, Germs, and Steel, and I reckon he got it out of his system. His subsequent books have had less and less to say, only repeating his earlier arguments and rehashing those of others I’ve heard put better before. He’s just become another run of the mill popular science writer and this book didn’t teach me anything new.

Science of the Discworld 3 by Terry Pratchett (co written with two scientist mates)

In contrast, I found this book a surprisingly good science read, having bought it expecting light comedy fare. His hypothesis about the importance of narrative in human thought and development was quite compelling. Poor Terry has been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimers, which will be a depressing loss for fans such as myself

Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts

Ripping yarn about escapee bank robber from Melbourne involved in the Bombay underworld, amongst other things. Supposedly based on his real life, some of the convenient plotting had the whiff of bullshit about it. No matter, as a story it’s one of the best I’ve read in a while and I recommend it to anyone. A bloke we met in bulgaria turned us on to it, but in India it seems every bookseller has 3 or 4 copies and it’s a firm backpacker favourite.

How the Dead Live by Will Self

If I thought The Book of Dave was a bitter book, this one puts it in the shade for caustic cynicism. I took a while to read this one because frankly I wasn’t in the mood for it a lot of the time during our relatively happy travels.

Midnights Children by Salman Rushdie

I’ve read a couple of Rushdie’s books, though not The Satanic Verses nor it’s sequel, The Buddha is a Big Fat Cunt. I’m finding it a bit hard to get into, mainly because the cheap photocopied paperback I bought is missing several pages.

Far Canal

September 1st, 2008

I had a chance to go to Venice years ago whilst travelling alone, but in a silly romantic gesture I decided I wouldnt go there unless it was with a lover. Now that I’m spliced with Karina, I could put it on our itenary. But I get ahead of myself.

After Bologne, we headed west through the rice and corn fields to the venerable town of Ravenna. After a bit of catherdral browsing and a beer outside the tomb of Dante Aligheri, we headed to the port about 10km out of town. This turned out to be a very long coastal drag of one club after another that seemed to go on forever, and was packed with Italians in a party mood. We parked up and wandered these beachside bars, with different styles of music coming out of each one. We had a flourescent cocktail in one and a dance in the other, then ambled up the street market to the docks where we finished the night with a beer next to the bobbing boats. On return to the van to sleep we’d aquired a parking ticket, our first, that I had no intention of paying.

As we drove north to Venice, we encountered a traffic jam of trucks that looked like it wasnt going anywhere in a hurry. So with our trusty GPS we navigated an inland route through farming country, stopping for some fresh watermelon that hit the spot. Arriving close to Venice, we veered of the highway and parked on the mainland in a longstay carpark nexty to ferry terminal.

The ferry chugged across the venetian lagoon, and with the city rising out of the waters as we approached, it looked as if we were travelling through a Titian painting. The scene had a beautiful stillness about it, not broken by the gulls crying from the sunken wooden stacks.

On arrival, we headed out into the maze of alleys canals and bridges. The quarter between the terminal and St Marco’s square was geared towards seperating the tourists from their money, though the costume masks some sold were little masterpieces. After listenening to the bells and chasing down pidgeons in the crowded square, we set off with the intention of getting lost and succeed quite effectively. By the time we’d orientated ourselves again we’d managed to turn up at the naval arsenal at the eastern fringe of the city. Wending our way back proved a challenge but by sunset we’d covered a whole lot of that strange, beautiful and unlikely city. As our boat pulled away, the clouds castling above the city became bathed in the red light of dusk, and already the memory of that day in my mind has taken on the surreal quality of a dream. (I’d like to make clear that I was not on hallucinagenics at the time)

After Venice we had a choice of heading straight north through the Dolomites to Austria, or around the coast to the east and up through Slovenia. I would have like to see the mountains, but you can’t see everything and it would have been a challenge on the van, so we arced around following the line of the coast to Trieste. Trieste, has a bit of Slovenia, a bit of Austria, and a fair slab of italy in it’s make up. After a hearty and nutritious lunch of various fried meats, we opted for a campground a few kms east of town in Muggia 50m from the Slovenian border. A relaxing couple of days followed, of riding the bikes, exploring the area including the Slovenia side, and tucking into some tasty fresh fish in a restaurant owned by a fishing co-op. Our last night in italy we sat in the little harour and witnessed a a spectacular sunset lightning storm off to the south, that threatened but never quite reached us. Driving out of Triest and over the mountains to slovenia the following day, our GPS led us one of the steepest streets we’d been up, complicated by having cobblestones, being only one lane wide, and having a fair amount of traffic trying to negotiate it. It was so steep my handbrake didn’t even hold the van, and i had to reverse several times. Finally getting to the top, I saw am articulated lorry shaping to go down it, only stopping himself from getting into a whole lot of trouble by my finger wagging. I wonder if he had the same model GPS.

What a load of Bologne

September 1st, 2008

After sunning ourselves lakeside in Lugano we followed a narrow windy road east over the Italian border and down to Lake Como, holding up a tailback of frustated cars in our wake. The drive along the Lakes western shore was exquisite, piloting through little cobblestone towns and past baroque lakeside villas, our van weaved and farted. The old-lira town of Bellagio clung on the opposite shore, bathed in the afternoon sun. This was the retreat of the worlds rich and shameless, of Berlesconi and George Clooney. Eventually we arrived in the town of Como, and hunted for a good hour in the maze of the old city trying to find a decent parking spot where we could sleep the night without a ticket. We wandered through the piazzas and covered archway streets to the lakeside for a meal. I don’t know whether the lake has risen or the town is subsiding, but a fair section of the waterfront was knee deep in lake water, forcing some shops and restaurants to close. That night we listened to a free concert of a tight band playing kind of afro-world music while sipping an overpriced Peroni, and then slept in our van on a steamy night. That night, some prick stole one of the handle grips off my bike of all things.

After Como we took what our road atlas had marked as a scenic route to Bergamo, though whoever gave it that designation must have have had an aesthetic fondness for car wrecking lots and abandoned factories. Like many other European cities that can trace their history to pre-Bananarama days, Bergamo was made up of a historic old city and a regular options-not-included city where people give the impression of going about their business. In Bergamo’s case, the historic city was perched on top of a hill surrounded by revetments and high walls, and limited parking. We had a walk through it’s medieveal lanes with a particular quickness in our step, as both of us were busting to find a toilet. After success, we actually looked at the boutique shops and delis that lined it’s streets, buying the makings of a fine sandwich. While we scoffed this down looking out over the hazy vista of the lower city and plains, we debated where to head next. We decided we’d go straight down the guts of northern Italy and follow the line ancient roman Via Emilia from Parma to Ravenna.

Avoiding Milan, that i’ve always found an ugly city, we headed out across the flat plains of the Po valley through Cremona to Parma, of ham and cheese fame. We had some interweb business to do, so our main experience of Parma was a 4 story carpark and a north african phone and internet cafe near the train station. After a long sweaty session in the nonAC phone booth like cubicles, we drove that night near a park across the river and cooked dinner. We were running low on water so I took a collapsible carrier and filled up at local trendy bar. I copped a few questioning looks as I man-handled a bulging thirty litres back through the bar, but they were lucky I didn’t take a “travellers” shower while I was at it.

The next day we headed along the the straight and congested single-lane Via Emilia, opting for a roadside deli between Parma and Emilia Reggio to try some local procuitto crudo and parmesano reggiano that went down a treat. Becheesed, we continued eastward to Modena, of Pavarotti, Balsamic vinegar and Ferrari fame. Ferrari was a 14km hike out at Maranelo, and I’d prefer to drive one than look at it. And with the fat man having aria’d his last, we opted to have a look at a balsamic producer, Karina and I being big fans of the tangy vinegar. On the edge of Modena in an unlikey looking house near a railway overpass, we found a local producer of the good stuff. Georgio, a 6 foot 5 lanky bloke with a big moustache and smile, showed us around his house and attic filled with small barrels and the lovely sweet/sour smell of the fermenting vinegar. While the process had quite a few steps, and called for taste and judgement in a 15 – 20 year cycle, it didnt seem that there was an awful lot to do except sit out in the front yard ad read the paper, which is what we’d interupted him doing. A bloody good business, but heavily controlled by modena syndicate who control and protect their monopoly. The end results were something special; dark, rich and complex, and we splashed out on a bottle for future enjoyment.

After Modena we arrived in the big city of Red Bologne, with it’s sprawling heart of covered walkways, renaissance architecture, and ubiquitous red walls. We stayed the night in a campground on the edge of town, mainly because it boasted the respite of a swimming pool, and spent the next day wandering the city transfixed by it’s sartorial splendour as each new street presented itself. That night, after a spag bog I felt complelled to order (tasty, but not incredible. there’s only so much you can do with it) in a romantic open air restaurant, they started showing a free movie, Brokeback Mountain, in the main piazza by Neptune’s fountain. Given Italian mens macho self-image and catholic upbringing, I was surprised that this story of cowboy man-love pulled a huge and appreciative crowd that filled up the whole square, but it’s possible modern Italians are more open-minded than I give them credit for. I thought Heath Ledger’s introverted cowpoke was another fine example of his acting chops, underlying what a waste of talent it was when he popped his clogs on pills. We spent another sweaty night in the van in the city centre, waking up to a cappocino and breakfast at a cafe. We decided to head for the Adriatic coast at Ravena. Stay tuned

James bond and gingerbread houses

August 11th, 2008

After Montreaux, we decided to take the motorway to Interlaken rather than the shorter route to avoid stressing the van, but the motorway had it’s steep sections as well. It took us on a loopy sort of route past cheesy Gruyere and through Bern, the very pretty capital where we stopped for lunch and had a wander. We were now in the German speaking part of Switzerland, and the shop signs had turned into real mouthfuls. We made some sandwiches in a square next to some hobos getting pissed, and watched some old guys play giant chess (one was hopeless). My Sarth Efrican (actualy his accent is fairly mild) mate Andrew had recommended Interlaken to us, and while I wont vouch for his choice of rugby and cricket teams, in this area his judgement was spot on.

Interlaken as the names suggest, is a town between two big lakes, one draining into the other. To the north, up a narrow valley the north face of the Eiger, the Munch. and the Jungfrau can be seen poking their snowy peaks at the horizon. We spent the night in a campground and gave the van a scrub. The next day we rode to the station and a caught the train up the valley to Lauterbraunen, where the scenery becomes so biscuit tin beautiful it’s scarcely creditable. The Tummelbach waterfall launches itself off a high cliff and bearded farmers rake hay in green pastures with jingling cows against a backdrop of enormous peaks. We walked up the valley under a line of cliffs to the base of the Jungfrau, and there took a cable car up to Gimmelwald, that with it’s clutch of half-timbered house huddled on top of a precipice, and panoramic view of the Eiger, somehow manages to up the ante on picturesqueness.

From Gimmelwald we went up to the ski town of Murren, underneath the peak that the restaurant Piz Gloria clings to. Piz Gloria was the one in the Bond flick, “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”, starring the widely recognised as the best James Bond, George Lazenby. I thought about going up and taking a look but 70 euros each was even steeper than the cable car, and I didn’t want to risk encountering Blofeld until I’d visited Q. Instead we took the ‘flower trail’ walk that leads along the ridge for a couple of hours before descending down sharply to where we left the bikes. The bike trip down the valley to Interlaken was a high speed bit of fun with the road tracking the line of the winding river gorge

After Interlaken we followed the north shore of the Thunsee lake, stopping for coffee early in the morning while a magical mist still hung on the still waters. Again trying to avoid stressing the van we took a roundabout route around Luzern before turning back south through a series of very long road tunnels, some 20 kms long of listening to our muffler reverberate off the tunnel walls. Eventually we emerged on the Italian side of the alps and down and endless slope that several cars had broken down or overheated trying to make there way up. We had been tossing up between going to Locarno or Lugano, both swiss towns on the northern edge of their respective lakes they share with italy. The choice was made for us when I missed what turned out to be final turn off to Locarno, so we spent the day in italian-looking lugano. On a baking day, I went for a swim in the lake where an ice-cold stream met the lake shore, and found a small eddy that wasnt covered in floating flotsam and duckshit.

Jazz….nice…

July 26th, 2008

As we entered Geneve I had already been watching the black stormclouds pile higher and higher in the sky. Karina was sleeping in the back of the  van,  and the Swiss border guards didnt seem too interested in my people smuggling. I found a parking spot in the centre right on the lake promenade, the nearby 120m high waterjet fountain near the lakes western end a handy reference point. I woke Karina up and we made our way to a lakeside van cafe just as the storm unleashed in torrential downpour of rain wind and lightning that the cafe’s canvas annexe couldnt hold back.

I’d been to Geneve a few times before, the first time when my Easyjet flight was predictibly late causing me to miss my bus to the ski field and forcing me to spend the night there. I remember walking the streets on a Friday night thinking, “what a quiet, dull town” as I searched in vain for a busy bar. However, on subsequent trips friends have shown us a different side to the town, of bars run by squatters and upmarket eateries. We caught up with our good friend Ernst, a longtime Geneve resident, UN worker(IT at UNHCR), and effortlessly multi-lingual, who has been a knowlegable guide for us in the past on all things Swiss. The lucky dog had a charming new girlfriend, Florence, and seemed in good spirits when we met him for some lebanese food in the Paquis district. We were also joined by our friend Soli, who we shared a chaotic flat with in London way back in 2000.  Another annoying multilinguist, she had moved there from Genoa a year and a half ago on a company transfer and seemed to be really enjoying it. In fact, a lot of the people we talked to, americans italians and french, all seemed to like Geneve so I reckon the city must have something going for it. Great skiing on your doorstep doen’t hurt either. We were all a little hungover so it was a relatively early night, though on a sunny morning the next day we caught up Soli and some of her shipping brokerage mates for coffee at a nearby cafe.

Geneve doesnt tend to dub it’s movies as often as they do in France, so Karina and I went to see Sex & the City.  Like an extra long tv episode, it managed to take product placement to levels not seen since the Pokemon movie.  That evening was the day of the Lake Parade, a techno parade and party similar to Zurich or Berlin’s Love Parade. We had a cycle down to have a look at it, following the trail of empty beer cans to the lake’s southern shore where there were about 2 dozen floats anchored along a road playing different sorts of dance music. Some people had taken the trouble to put the full rave gear on, and there were a few big trannys around that were hard on the eyes. It seemed a little bit incoherent, with more people walking in search of god knows what instead of stopping and dancing. Karina and I had a dance for a whil, but her legs were a bit tired after carting the bikes down the mountain in Chamonix, so we left early. We caught up with Ernst and Florence at a traditional Brasserie and sunk beer from 5 litre dispensers. Ernst noticed some arab looking bloke leaning back in his chair and fishing around suspiciously near Florence’s handbag. Upon being noticed he cheekily got up and sat near a group of americans and started doing the same thing. I wasn’t having this and yelled at him from across the restaurant to piss off, which he did but his smile revealed that it want before snatching one of their wallets. In hindsight, I wouldnt be surprised if the waiter was in on it too.

The next day Ernst invited us to the Montreaux Jazz Festival, on at the time about 80km around on the north side of the lake.  Leading us at our usual 85kmh all the way must have been a new experience for him. Rain and low cloud persisted, and pretty Montreux wasnt at it’s best as we cruised in singing Smoke on the Water. Herbie Hancock was playing that night and we splashed out as an English bloke was selling his excess tickets, and I really wanted to take the chance to see one of the greats. Herbie had played piano in one of Mile’s legendary quintets. It was a cookin’ show, mixing some of his classics with some Joni Mitchell song, and he had two exellent female singers in the band and Beninese guitarist who did some beat box stuff as well. Ersnt has thoughtfully brought along a bottle champagne to kick things off. After Herbie, Chaka Khan was next on the bill. She had turned into a big, slightly scary-looking soul mama. Her band was really tight as she belted out her big numbers, though her voice what it had lost in range seemed to compensate in volume. We moved off to the wings, and had a dance with Florence and Ernst before retiring for the night, Ersnt back to Geneve and us in the local carpark.

The High Alps – Day 43

July 23rd, 2008

All I see is white. There is little hope for rescue. Karina has lost her toes to frostbite, and we ate the last of the dogs last night. It fell to me put the faithful trusting hound out of its misery, before sautéing it in a red wine and garlic sauce. The wind howls at us like a banshee day and night, and I find myself longing at each step for a crevasse to swallow me up like it took Sebastian, and put an end to this futility. Only the thought of once more seeing cricket on the village green keeps me going, along with my crystal meth. Tell Fanny to keep her chin up.

***

We had a coffee in one of the rubber-necking cafes on the pedestrianised avenue of Aix-en-Provence, or Exy in Provence as I named it when we got the bill, and contemplated our next move. We could head east along the Cote D’Azur through Cannes, San Tropez, Nice and Monaco to Genoa, or chance the van in the mountains and head north to Geneve. After staring at the road atlas until my eyes started moving in and out of focus, we decided we’d take the high road, as this would let us go through Switzerland then drop back down to the Italian lakes, and we had some friends in Geneve who we could get loco with, Swiss style.

Karina and I had been in Aix before, in a freezing yet romantic December, and though it was a beaut little town. Its warm yellow buildings hid a town of bars and boutiques, student hangouts and street markets, and blokes bickering over boules. Karina checked out the clothes and bought herself a pair of earrings, while I sprayed myself with a sampler bottle of aftershave that hung around me in a cloud of eye-watering musk for the rest of the afternoon.

We cooked up a lunch of our usual beans and rice while parked in the median strip, then decided to take our first motorway to the town of Gap, the theory being that it would be easier on the van than the backroads we’d been holding up traffic along, though the tolls can be quite hefty in France. We headed north into the Rhone Alps, part of the Alps that I’d not traveled through before, and followed up a wide bottomed ex-glacial valley (Im a geo, and I know a wide bottomed ex-glacial valley when I see one) with peaks of folded sandstone in an area of stark beauty. We passed the magnificent fort town of Sisteron, and I asked Karina weakly if we could get her Sisteron drugs, before reaching Gap, nestled in the palm of the surrounding mountain fingers. We stopped here for while, as both the car and my throat needed some lubrication, before we attempted the high road to Grenoble. The town had an artist thing going on in its mall which we browsed down, though none of them were Rembrandt, and I was happy to find no Gap in Gap.

The road to Grenoble quickly turned steep and windy, and the mountains we passed got bigger, though I should point out this was only in comparison to ones we’d encountered previously and that they didn’t visibly gain mass as a result of us transiting their base. After driving around a long cold-looking lake we started to pass a lot of Napoleon references in the street and place names, and inferred that the Emperor with the Napoleonic complex must have passed through here with his Grande Armee at some stage. Coming close to Grenoble, we worked our way higher and higher before going down an exceptionally long steep (12%) slope that I was grateful we weren’t driving up.

Grenoble is a big town, the queen of the Alps, with a big student population and progressive politics. We parked the night just next to the river near the old city, and wandered in that evening. For a Tuesday night it was packed, with veritable enchiridion of funky overpriced bars and haunts. Karina wondered whether they all had to work tomorrow or not. We had a drink in one then settled in to watch some free screenings of a short film festival that was happening in one of the squares. The French shorts were about half short films and half animations. I’ve seen a shedload of movies over the years and consider myself an open-minded film buff, but while the animations were excellent both in their ambition and realisation, the short films were some of the most dreadful self-indulgent tosh I’d seen from somebody given access to a camera: dull with nursery school level narratives. One about some sheila trying to fly a kite on the beach was particular waste of celluloid. Still, it was free…

The next day we continued through the Alps, from Gremoble to Megeve following a steep river canyon most of the way. We van made a couple of paff sounds, like a pissy backfire, so we pulled over and had some lunch while it cooled. It seemed to go away when we continued on to Chamonix. Karina and I have at various times contemplated buying an apartment in Chamonix or Tignes-Val D’Isere and wanted to check out how busy it is in the summer. Chamonix was absolutely chockers with punters, though how many to the week rental Im not so sure. We stayed in a campground in Chamonix-Sud, under the morning shadow of Mount Blanc and the Aguille Du Midi, capped with snow and looking magnificent. We decided to walk up to a waterfall that afternoon. After starting off on the wrong side of the river we had to ford a fast and icy stream then scramble up the steep slope before we could join the main trail. At the waterfall under the slopes of Mount Blanc, we thought about traversing across to the bottom of a nearby glacier, but it was getting dark and the arse-end of the glacier looked kind of dirty from a distance, so we hiked back down then rode out bikes back to the campsite.

The next day was hot, and the parasailers out early, spiraling down the valley trying to catch the thermals. We rode up the valley towards Argentiere. Le Brevant gondola was closed for construction and the Aguille du Midi costs too much, so we decided to take the bikes up La Flegere cable car and ride down. In hindsight this was slightly ambitious given the state of bikes. Mine was a street bike, not a mountain bike, and Karinas bike’s brakes weren’t working properly. The trail down was very steep and coved in loose rocks and gravel. Karina had a couple of small stacks, had we had to walk a few sections. After about a third of the way down we really weren’t enjoying it, so I decided to try one of the walking trails that seemed longer and more zig-zaggy, but less steep. The trail was rideable and encouraging for the first couple of hundred meters, but gradually deteriorated into a very narrow scrambly trail with steep rock sections. We ended up basically having to push, man-handle and carry the bikes down about another 1200m vertical which was very strenuous on a hot day. The first beer we had after coasting back into the centre hardly touched the sides. That night we went into a bar that had free wifi, and met a friendly Australian couple in a bar who invited us back to their apartment where they had a couple of bottles of plonk. We chatted into the wee small hours.

The next day a thunderstorm was brewing and we nursed the van and our hungover heads along the motorway to Geneve.

Agde to Arles

July 23rd, 2008

Up until now, I havent been impressed with the beaches of the French part of the Med. The whole Cote D’ Azur you have to do breastroke to keep your head above the used condos and frite packets floating around in there. Nice has pebbles instead of sand, which brings to mind when I thought I’d get out of London for a day at beach in Brighton. I was that depressed to find rocks bigger than my fist instead of sand, and a turgid sea of cold brown water. Anyway, Agde, or more precisely the Cap D’Agde, which is on the Southwest side of the Rhone mouth, had decent sandy beaches and sea that you could see the bottom of. Speaking of bottoms, where we camped was right next to Europe’s largest Naturism camp. Id been once before to a nude beach in Brazil, hiking for miles through the scrub near Buzios with Karina to discover she was the only women on the beach. But this place was like a city. Curiousity got the better of us and we decided to pay it a visit. Now I’ve grown more comfortable in my own skin as I’ve got older, but pushing a shopping trolley down the supermarket aisle starkers was an eye opener for me, and I decided not to have sausages (or bearded clam) for dinner that night. The place was huge, with hotels, campgrounds, shopping malls, bars and beach. We had a lay on the beach, after some precautionary sunscreen, and I have to admit swimming then showering and laying on the towel are better without the possiblity of sand in your bathers. They advertise as this clean, back to nature lifestyle, and there were a few bare-arsed families that probably fitted that bill. But I detected an undercurrent of sleaze, with lots of single blokes with jewelery in interesting place, and 3 or 4 stores selling bondage gear. Then again, maybe they were just Germans.

After a few days in Agde, and a more extensive suntan than Im used to, we headed to Montpellier. We had a friend of a friend to catch up with, but I was buggered if I could find where I’d written his number. Montpellier is a big town and an old city that seemed to have only one way in or out in the van. We thought we’d keep pressing on as I was eager to see Arles before night fall. This involved driving through the Carmargue, the swampy delta where the Rhone meets the sea. Famed for its Carmargue horses, of which we saw one munching forlornly in a drainage ditch, and mosquitos, of which we saw plenty.

Coming into Arles is like approaching any French town. First you have farms and light industry, then the big Hypermarts, then a zone of service stations and car dealerships that give way to some high rise apartment buildings, then a commercial residential zone of lighting shops and bakeries, and finaly the elegant architecture of the old city at it’s centre.

I had my heart set on visiting the roman arena in Arles. Id never been in the Coliseum in Rome, due to a combination of big queue and general miserliness, but this time I wanted a gander. It was very well preserved and had been in use since 56AD, not to mention it’s appearence in the rather good film “Ronin”. The old city was a narrow maze, and we were lucky to make it out of there, let alone find a parking space. We manged to find one by the river and wandered in and up to the arena. They were selling tickets to the Bullfighting that had just started, to which Karina bluntly refused to go (see earlier posts). But someone explained it was a special “Carmargue” style where the object is to take a ribbon from the bulls horns with a small handheld hook, and that no bull were killed, she relunctantly agreed to join me.

There must have been 25 guys in the arena with the bull, who took turns to run at the bull before leaping quite athletically (you would to if you had a bull’s horn just about to turn your date into a shashlik) to safety of a fence with running board around the bottom. The bulls varied in size, with the bigger bulls provide more entertainment (i.e. chance of gore). The first one managed to jump the fence and terrorise the front row spectators. Sitting on a sunny evening in a 2000 year old arena was quite atmospheric, and I thought “put this crowd in togas, have a couple of albatross sellers, and I could be Alius Maximus”

After the last bull trotted out of the arena like he’d done it a hundred times before, they had a fairly over the top awards ceremony with marching bands and women in traditional dress (they looked like milkmaids) that seemed to drag on until every last partipant had an award. We took the opportunity to jump into the arena and get a bulls eye view on things.

After a glass of wine we wandered back to the van and drove out along the backroads towards Aix en Provence. We stayed on the outskirts of a minor town, where the local kids took turns to ride a loud trailbike up and down next to our camper. I unscrewed the back of a powerbox in an effort to ‘borrow’ some electricity (it’s not stealing if you cant see it) but the bastard hadnt been wired up to the mains yet, so I stopped short before attempting this and probably electricuting myself.