Sunday, 9 December 2012

Istanbul to Bristol 18 - Return

Paris, Sunday 9th December 2012.

This, racing across the northern flats of France, out of Paris at two hundred kilometres an hour, is the end.

I'm dangerously trying to put a meaning, a conclusion, to my trip, a deeper insight attached to the distance covered. Something short I can claim to have learnt, a small piece of personal philosophy to give to anyone who asks: "How was it?".

The problem is the narrative is always written in retrospective. Our minds need a story to link everything together, otherwise you have a random, incomprehensible stream of events; no history, just one thing after another. But this can create cause and effect where there is none, linked lies where there were only scattered truths.

My mind runs a thousand bad plots through the last fortnight, looking for a storey arc that fits, but there isn't one. All I wanted to do was go, see and feel what there was in the cities and the countries. I shouldn't ruin that with creating a post-event fiction.

And if I all I wanted to do was go and see, what did I see? With an outsider's eye I saw more similarities than differences and borders that fit people badly, but borders that would be ill placed anywhere.

In Britain we are spoilt by the clear boundary of the sea. A salty roar that proclaims loudly and clearly a discreet limit. Even in high speed trains that burrow under the channel we still sit in a black subterranean nothingness for twenty minutes that clearly separates the island from its neighbours.


What I feel I've seen in the last two weeks is a world of more fluid cultural identities, small changes of beliefs and cuisine, blurring and mixing into each other. Only occasionally is there a hard cultural border, and these often feel artificially exaggerated.

Perhaps it's because many of the countries I travelled through are relatively young in their current incarnation, having previously been part of some larger political entity and given little freedom to explore their own identity. The sometimes small differences are now being seized on, either by the people or the state, to rapidly build a distinct identity, something to clearly separate them from their neighbours.

In the Britian I don't feel this same need to define yourself, show the clear separation from others exists. (Perhaps this exists to a greater extent in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland; but I've never lived there, so I can't claim to know.) Maybe it's not the sea, but a consequence of not having been under someone else's control in a very long time and even the decolonisation of the empire, while not simple or easy, happened on reasonably good terms; they were not forcefully taken by some single competing empire; rather returned to their scattered rightful owners. It's probably a mix of the two effects.

Whatever the mechanism, even amongst the pomp and pageantry of London's most royal exuberances, it never seems like the UK is proving who it is, pointing out the differences between itself and everyone else.

It would have been nice to spend some more time at each of my stops, get to know some local people and get beyond the brief tourist encounter, to try and see if the real distinct differences emerge with time, but that's for another trip. This time it was about the stretches between the towns, the rolling, rattling views into the night between the bright spots of cities, the unassuming landscape where borders hide.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Istanbul to Bristol 17 - Paris 2

Paris, Saturday 8th December 2012.

I'm breathing hard in the cold air, a cloud of vapour swirls in front of me, my footsteps clang and echo on the metal staircase. Sara asks breathlessly "Can we stop here for a moment?".

"If you want." I try to make it sound casual, like I'd prefer to carry on, but I'm glad of the stop. Sara changes camera lenses to make the stop more than an embarrassing halt because we're out of breath and unfit.

I like to think we're both in reasonable shape, even if we're not running marathons, but the long staircase up the West leg of the Eiffel tower is hard work. Stairs are always hard work. A family with small children appears, the kids happily bouncing up the stairs, the parents, like us, huffing and puffing as they try to keep their children in sight. I don't know if the kids are happier with the loud clanging their footsteps make or the red faces of their parents; it doesn't matter, both are improved by the kids increasing the pace of their stomping ascent.

At the mid-level we wander around the edge, looking at Paris in all compass directions, trying to spot the landmarks we know and work out what the impressive buildings are that we don't. The sky is overcast and the grey light is not helping to make the equally grey stone houses of Paris any easier to see.

Below us we can see many tour coaches parked all around the tower. The queues have grown since we started our climb, long snakes of people are growing below us, looking from the top like a pointillist picture, each coloured spot a hat or a scarf.

We couldn't buy access to the very top at the ticket shop below, but overhearing a rumour we queue for ten minutes at a closed kiosk at the mid-level that apparently sells tickets every hour.

The rumour turns out to be true and we soon have tickets and we're allowed to squeeze into a lift with ten other visitors and the operator, who looks so bored that if she has to squeeze in next to one more oversized tourist she's going to throw herself off the tower, as much for the change of scene as anything else. Luckily the top is completely enclosed so she's not able to do so.

In haze we can't see a lot further than before, but it's a nice extra view. A break in the clouds allows a single beam of sunlight to slowly pass over the city south east of us and drift as a solid column infront of a few skyscrapers and end on the École Militaire. Having been planned, Paris, like Budapest, is a very flat city. The towers of apartments and office blocks are further away on the outskirts sticking out as towering straight edged alien additions to small the more intricate jumble of apartments in the foreground.

After coming back down we cross the Pont d'lena and go up the stairs between the twin arms of the Palais de Chaillot. We share a pizza for lunch at a little sandwich shop and carry on the the Arc de l'Triomphe.

The traffic around the Arc is as crazy as you would hope. The giant round-about is clogged with cars and buses coming from all sides. Towards the centre of the circulating traffic there appear to be cars that have abandoned the idea of escape, their owners resigned to being caught in the metal ice-flow and now just hoping that they'll be eventually spat out somewhere. A bus driver leans over his steering wheel, looking dully at the scene before him. You could believe he's been stuck there for ten years, marooned with his passengers. When he gets back to his life someone's going to have to explain Twitter, iPhones and a black US president to him.

We carry on into the long mouth of the Champs-Élysées, the wide pavements clogged with Christmas shoppers. Cars try to get in and out of the side streets, but are mostly stuck behind the slow flow of bag carrying pedestrians.

After making it half-way down we get on the Metro at Franklin Roosevelt and head to the Sacré-Coeur back in Montmartre. The walk up the steps to the rise where the basilica sits is hampered by hundreds of touts, some with long chains of Eiffel tower statues, some with coloured threads threatening to make you a friendship band and others still just selling postcards.

From the top of the steps, looking back across Paris, the view is great, even if the most iconic outline, the Eiffel tower, is hidden away to the right. The sun is starting to set and the grey outlines of Paris are bathed in a pink light, subtle pastel shades reflect deceptively warmly off the white stone of the church behind. To the west of the church is a Christmas market, it lives in the same sort of hut as the others I've seen, but there are fewer schwenken grills and more crêpe stands, each with giants pots of Nutella bristling collections of sticky handled knives.

We drop back down to the Boulevard de Clinchy through the winding cobbled streets of Montmartre, tourists sat outside in the cold weather around restaurants, many small art shops have paintings on display in the windows, some nice, but many ugly with too much meaning imposed on the tight confines of the canvas.

For dinner we find the Au Rendez-Vous des Artists on the corner of Clinchy and Rue des Martyrs. The restaurant has a comfortable self-assured air, it's almost theatrically French, but you don't get the impression they're doing it to impress anyone.

Most of the guests appear to be French, but if they're local we can't tell. The two waiters are dressed in careworn black and white, sagging leather wallet pouches hanging around their waists. The younger of the two, when not attending to any customers stands with his hands behind his back looking up at the football showing silently on a TV in the background. The older retreats behind the bar to polish glasses.

Sara orders a gin gimlet as an aperitif, for which the older waiter is called into service. While cocktails are on the menu, it appears by the staff's reaction that it's more a matter of completeness, you're not actually supposed to order them; but after a moment of looking for the shaker at the back of a cupboard the ingredients are mixed, and with loving care poured into a glass. The waiter smiles at his own work, announces it done and gets his younger colleague to serve it. When Sara tastes it and smiles with approval, both the staff, watching intently, smile back and seem just a little bit more relaxed than they were a second ago.

We eat what seems most appropriate from the menu, sharing some escargot as a starter, eaten with the provided specialist tools, then rare steak and frites for the main, all with a small caraffe of red wine. So happy is Sara with her first cocktail that she orders a second, which flatters the older waiter. The second is prepared with even more care than the first, a big grin of pride at his acknowledged skill and craftsmanship sitting on his face.

After slowly finishing our drinks, then sharing a crème brûlée and crème caramel (just to make sure we know the difference) we wander to the Moulin Rouge and join the queue snaking into the waiting area to one side of the main entrance. The bouncer asks us if we have a phone reservation, which we do, but he doesn't check our names on a list; during the entire evening no-one ever checks that we did make a reservation.

Once the doors open we're shown to one of the hundred-or-so six-person tables that fan out from the stage, each with a small red shaded lamp marking the end. The inside is almost exactly as we expect, red with touches of gold dangling trim and dimly lit. A score of staff are scurrying around, showing people to their seats and taking payment, but most are hurrying back and forth with coolers, glasses and the bottles of champaign included in each ticket. The corks are twisted out and popped with well practised ease before the champaign is poured, bubbling quickly and foaming, into tall glasses. On our table is another couple and a solitary gent who appears just after the lights go down. He politely refuses his half bottle of champaign, something the waitress refuses to accept, and she opens it anyway leaving it for him should he change his mind.

Then it starts, a two hour spectacle of the most camp, glitzy and sequin covered dancing Sara and I have ever seen or could ever have imagined. The sets and costumes change at a frenetic pace, different after almost every song. The elaborate show reaches its peak somewhere between the chorus girls leading a troupe of tiny ponies around the stage and one of the leading ladies diving into a transparent swimming pool that rises out of the floor to swim with a python. Between the ensemble scenes are occasional variety acts; tumblers, a racing techo music juggler and a mime with a magic suitcase who makes some of the audience act out a little scene.

The show is impressive, but nothing like what Sara and I had imagined. We'd thought of something more burlesque, more titillating. While the dancing girls were mostly topless, any ideas of eroticism vanish after the first ten minutes. The whole show was so over-the-top, so camp in the extreme, but played with a straight face that Sara and I can't decided if the people putting on the show know how camp it is. We can only assume so, and somehow hope they do: but would it be better if they did or didn't know?

As the house lights come back up we blink, trying to remove the sparkling colours that have burnt themselves onto our retinas. During the show the solo latecomer to our table vanished, leaving his champaign behind and undrunk. While the crowds press their way out we sit and do the only civilised thing; drink his champaign, while trying to take in what we've seen, recounting the most surprising events to each other. What was more unexpected: the ponies or the fluorescent aerial duet? The swimming snake dancer or cast vanishing into the ceiling?

Confused and exhausted we walk back the hotel, through the dark quiet side streets of Paris. Eventually reaching our bed and falling asleep to dreams of ponies dancing the can-can with snakes that can juggle.

Friday, 7 December 2012

Istanbul to Bristol 16 - Paris

Zurich, Friday 30th November 2012.

Derek and I get to the waiting TGV Lyra in Zurich Hauptbahnhof with five minutes to spare, something I would never have risked with British public transport. Derek has now been in Switzerland long enough to have become used to the more reliable tram network and doesn't see what I was worried about.

The TGV is much more modern and sleek than I expected, having imagined one of the earlier hulking square cut silver models that looks like the sides are made of corrugated steel. The wheels and pipework under the train are covered in curved streamlined chunks of ice. Inside the seats are smaller and more cramped than the other recent trains, the style is more airline style seating, as is usual in Britain. I settle into my seat just in time to wave Derek goodbye as the train starts to pull away.

Outside the sky is a flat light grey and patches of snow hide in crevices and on shaded patches of grass. We quickly pass through the northern parts of Switzerland and reach Basel where most of the people in the carriage get off before we cross the boarder. Shortly inside France the train stops again and we pick up a large group of middle aged people on an outing and a few young, thin and tired looking soldiers. The soldiers quickly show one of the most important skills that anyone in the military must acquire by falling asleep in their seats; the travelling party on the other hand opens some bottles of wine and shares it amongst themselves in plastic cups.

The passing chef du board doesn't seem phased in the slightest by the rapidly growing number of empty wine bottles that gather on the table at the end of the carriage and asks for my ticket, InterRail pass and passport; the first time my passport has been checked since the Hungarian boarder. After careful consideration and a few sceptical looks that I'm probably the same person as in the passport photo, but only just, he returns my documents. Once past Dijon the train accelerates and rushes along the high speed track towards Paris. The lines of snow and shadow on the ploughed fields merge into one rapidly vibrating barcode.

As we approach Paris the wine drinking group point out of the right of the train at some tower blocks and speak to each other of "banlieues" in earnest and almost excited tones. They talk and make honest and concerned faces that only middle class people can when talking about the less fortunate. Sympathy mixed with a barely concealed fascination for an existence they fear above almost everything else.

In the Gare Du Lyon I am quickly swallowed by the metro system as I try to find a cross town train in the maze of tunnels and platforms. At the second corner of a blue tiled tunnel sits an accordion player with a beret, who I assume has been placed there by the French Tourist Board to ensure that stereotypes are maintained. I buy a metro ticket, but seem to be the only one doing so. Many of metro passengers are happy with jumping over the barriers or just pushing their way through the gates.

The hotel is hidden down a small dead end that I walk past twice before realising that's where it's hidden. Inside it's everything you hope for in a small Parisian hotel; dark, busy decorative lampshades, assorted classic furniture and a small old cage lift with a red carpeted staircase winding around it like a flat marble snake. Hung on the wall behind the reception is a series of old glamour magazine covers, 1970's topless women smiling at all the new guests.

I drop my bags in the room, which like the rest of the hotel is invitingly under-lit. Between the bedroom and the bathroom sits an unexpected small kitchen with a two hob cooker. I check the empty cupboards and find the fridge is stocked with the usual miniature drinks, whose tiny single-serving stature can only make a solo traveller feel more lonely if they choose to drink one. But nothing to cook on the hob.

Back outside I head to the nearby Gare du Nord to meet my Girlfriend's incoming Eurostar train. The station is incredibly busy, with everyone in a rush to be somewhere else. Just as the small group of waiting relations I've joined is most expectant to see the train arrive a procession of luggage carts is parked right across the end of the platform.

If Paris is a city of romantic encounters and reunions it doesn't look like the baggage handlers have been told, everyone's longing and eager looks are now focused on some dirty canvas covered carts. After ten minutes the luggage carts move, just in time for the slightly delayed train to pull in and three hundred people to spill onto the platform. This turns into a long stream of scarves and hats being rapidly put on in the cold air, with many wheeled suitcases using this as a chance to try and escape their owner's distracted grasp and attack the ankles of other travellers.

Eventually Sara appears in the crowd and we meet with a hug and a kiss. On the way back to the hotel we try to catch each other up by both speaking at the same time, then stopping and waiting for the other to start first, leaving us with unexpected blocks of silence.

After stopping at the hotel we walk to the Boulevard de Clichy and the Moulin Rouge where Sara wants to get tickets for tomorrow night. After seeing the film years ago she's wanted to go and see the real show, having almost managed it on a school trip, but was frustrated by her friend's baulking at the prices.

The prices are still high, but Sara insists that it's her treat. I make a few mumbled 'If you insist' and 'I'm not that hot on musicals' remarks as to not sound too eager on my girlfriend paying for us to see a lot of pretty dancing semi-naked ladies. Sara gives me a look like I'm protesting a bit too much, but luckily something on the other side of the road catches my attention and I avoid any incriminating eye contact.

When we try and buy tickets the bouncer at the door just gives us a leaflet and tells us to book by phone.  We then wander into the smaller streets around Mon Martre looking for a restaurant, but being Paris there is no end of restaurants, almost all of which would be great. After thirty minutes of paralysis through choice; not wanting to go into any restaurant as we always imaging that we'll miss something better just a little further on, we settle on a little simple place that still has a space for two.

The food is traditional uncomplicated French food, duck, beef, potatoes etc. As we're eating many people seem to be checking the time and at nine most of the other diners are gone, we assume to a theatre or show somewhere nearby. By ten we're the only two left, but after asking as only British people would if we're troubling them and should we leave, the waitress assures us that we're not.

We walk back to the hotel through the small street that seem familiar, even thought I've never been to Paris before, from hundreds of films and books. Perhaps it's also that Paris is so multi-cultural, the mixed crowds of European, Asian, African and other people mean it could easily be London, Manchester or Birmingham; making the city seem less unusual.

The other thing that helps is that my poor French has always been my fall-back foreign language. It's the only foreign language that I've tried to learn as an adult, when I'm abroad anywhere and am asked something my default is always to "oui" or "non" to a question; from Malaysia to Poland many have received an errant "pardon" while my brain was struggling to find the right language.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Istanbul to Bristol 15 - Switzerland


Switzerland, 6th December, 2012.

The sleeper train switches across the endless overlaid tracks outside Zurich Hauptbahnhoff with clicks and squeaks, then slides into one of the many platforms, on time at precisely 7:26 in the morning. I hope I don't look as tired and ruffled as the others in my compartment extracting themselves from their bunks, but I'm not optimistic. After some on-bunk contortions to get my jumper on that would make a yoga master proud I clamber off my bunk and get off the train.

Derek meets me on the platform and we wander through the small underground shopping area to get to the tram stop. I smile in greeting when I see the familiar H&M underwear poster that's been a repeating background since Sofia; but then the model moves, turns and she looks right at me. For a second I'm scared that I'm hallucinating, or still dreaming somehow, I rub my sleep filled eyes, and look again. She does it again, the exact same movement. Confused I squint at the poster and realise it's a video poster. It's the same advert photo as before, except she moves into the final pose before being frozen and a price appearing, it's very disconcerting.

We eat breakfast in Derek's apartment and I watch his floor sweeping robot with fascination as it works its way across the room in careful rows, collecting dust on the removable cloth it holds. Around the edge of the sofa and table legs it bumps forwards and backwards rapidly and wiggles around trying to reach obstructed spots, which is hard not to anthroporomophise as a frustrated extra effort to remove a stubborn stain.

This is the real future; robot servants doing the cleaning, not some lazy Hollywood science fiction of moving posters. Even if domestic robots are very limited and expensive at the moment it still feels like a glimpse into a future I want, a future without having to tidy up. I know you get semi-autonomous drones hunting terrorists and driverless trains carrying millions of people a year, but a cleaning robot seems a bigger step towards getting a personal flying car because it's something you can have in your home, not on a battlefield. A Predator with hellfire missiles is all very clever, but it's not going to hang up the laundry for me.

I wonder how it knows where it's going, and Derek explains some of the different ways that robots can navigate, and their different merits, depending on what the robot is trying to achieve. I'm pulled away from his explanation as, having finished, the robot returns to its start spot and makes a happy series of bleeps, convincing me instantly that it has a soul as well as an endless desire to clean.

To get out of Zurich we decide to take the train to the city of Aarau, on the banks of the River Aar. The old town is small and charming with its tall mediaeval houses packed closely together inside the footprint of the old city walls. On some of the tall townhouses the roof hangs a long way over the front of the building, the underside of which is colourfully painted. The old part of the city, with small cobbled streets, shuttered windows and a light sprinkling of snow matches almost exactly what you'd imagine from a small Swiss city.

The small church is equally charming, with deeply coloured stained-glass windows glowing red and blue with the light of the winter sun behind them. This is the first non-catholic or eastern church I've seen on my trip and it's a refreshing minimal affair, no darkness and oppressive opulence to be found anywhere inside. I don't have any preference for the form of Christianity practiced, but I know who's interior design I prefer.

Aarau was also an early possession of the Hapsburg dynasty, being bought by Rudolph I von Hapsburg in 1273, who also acquired in his reign the duchy of Austria and established the Hapsburgs as one of the major imperial dynasties that ruled feudal Europe. The Hapsburgs later lost Aarau to the Swiss confederacy and for three months Aarau was even the first capital of the Helvetic Republic, the first unified form of Switzerland. Now Aarau is a bit quieter, most of the mediaeval defences have been removed over hundreds of years, leaving only an impressive clock tower and tightly woven core of old houses and streets behind.

To warm from the cold up we decide to head back towards Zurich and get out at Baden, named after the hot mineral springs that rise out of the ground there, which Derek and I hope to try out. Our plan is thwarted by heavy construction works as the baths are being renovated. Looking through the wire mesh fence into the hole where the baths were we see nothing but diggers, mud and a jumble of plastic pipes. It might be warm mud, not that it looks like it, but we give it a miss. Instead we walk along the River Limmat, then climb up to the town centre and onwards through tiny staircase side streets to the ruin of Stein Castle. From the remains, which still fly the flag of Baden, we can see down onto the jumble of houses and the churches with their multi coloured tiled roofs.


Derek tells me that in Michael Portillo's TV series about European railway journeys the former Conservative MP and minister made a visit to Baden to buy a recently revived type of pastry called a Spanisch Broetli. These were so prized that servants from Zurich were made to travel to Baden in the night to bring fresh ones to their masters in the morning. Given this sales pitch we naturally had to try some.

The Spanisch Broetli turn out to be similar to Danish pastries, but filled with a sweet carrot and nut paste. While happily munching my Broetli I became worried that this is how the Tory party wins you over. First it's sweet baked goods and travel recommendations from a smiling, if slightly patronising, ex-minister, but before you know it you start blaming foreigners for all the country's ills and gleefully cutting welfare spending.

In the evening Derek and I head to the Cafe Odeon in the Bellevue area of Zurich. The interior is mostly gold, mirrors and marble, almost like some of the churches I've seen, but with massive crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling throwing out masses of scattered twinkling light. Space is tight, but we find a marble table near a window and relax on the red leather benches. The crowd seems an interesting mix of middle aged theatre goers and tourists, most busy around the central bar, chatting and making exaggerated hand movements.  Outside trams rattle by, going to and from the busy interchange on Bellevue place.



The Cafe Odeon was focal point for the interwar De Stilj art movement, which reacted against the horrors of conflict by revering child-like spontaneity and play in its works. It was also one of Lenin's favourite hang-outs while he was exiled in Switzerland before returning to Russia.

Sadly the cafe is smaller than it was, half the space has since become a pharmacy and, irritatingly, it has screens showing football while playing light dance music. I don't know Lenin's attitudes to these things, but it's hard to imagine him approving, especially at eight Francs a beer. Perhaps it's these changes that drove Lenin from the Odeon back to Russia, but even with my newly found taste for Tory approved pastries I don't think it's going to push me over the edge to start a revolution, instead Derek and I register our protest more quietly by heading for another bar.

We find a bar (and furniture shop) called My Place filled with students and a deliberately ramshackle collection of designer tables, chairs and lamps, all of which, apart from the students, can be bought. Here we get more comfortable and worry about important things like the frustratingly long time it takes us to write e-mails that are to our satisfaction and if it's better to host you own mail server or rely on a cloud service.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Istanbul to Bristol 14 - Vienna


Vienna, 5th December 2012.

I eat breakfast in the hostel canteen, which is as cold, clean and institutional as the rest of the building. The giggling, laughing and squealing of a school group behind me mixed with the somber looks of the canteen staff, dressed all in white, makes the transformation to a cuckoo's nest like sanitarium almost complete. Previous hostels have all been little operations but this one though is a big institutional effort.

To get into the centre of Vienna I cross the Ringstasse via the museum quarter, its grand twins of the Natural History and Art History museums only a taster of what is waiting inside the line of former fortifications. I pass through the Neoclassical Burgtor gate to stand in the Heldenplatz and admire the Hofburg Palace, its Neue Burg wing arcing spectacularly around the south-western side. The palace is now the official residence of the Austrian President and a major tourist attraction, but for more than six hundred years it was the seat of power for various empires. I wander around the outside a little to try and take in some of the grandeur and scale, but don't feel the urge to see the inside, having seen enough splendour in Budapest yesterday.  

The assistant in the tourist information centre doesn't understand the word 'free' as I ask about walking tours, but hopeful of a repeat of the great experiences in Belgrade and Budapest I take a leaflet and find a tour that starts soon in the nearby Neue Markt.

The grey December skies now start to rain lightly and when I reach the Neue Markt looking for the eleven o'clock tour meeting point I find others hiding under the marquee of a nearby hotel. At eleven the Neue Markt is distinctly lacking tour guides. My fellow waiting tourists start to grumble in German about the tardiness of our guide; at three minutes past eleven one of the group phones the number on the back of the leaflet, demanding to know where the guide is. The guide's husband answers the phone and tells us that she is on her way. At four minutes past, in a multitude of German accents, the group agrees that you can't waste people's time like this and it's a disgrace. At five minutes past eleven I'm the only one left still waiting at the meeting point. I leave before the guide turns up and I have to give an embarrassed explanation of why everyone left.

With my unexpected free time and the continuing rain I head for the Vienna museum. Inside the curators clearly realise that the pre-history of the area is not what people are interested in, so in a few brief exhibits you are taken straight into Vienna as a fortified city, at times the centre of empires and at others the war torn edge in conflict with the Ottoman Turks.

While Vienna is famous for the Ring Strasse, the circular road with many spectacular buildings built by Emperor Franz-Joseph I from 1853 onwards, I had not realised how extensive the fortifications that used to exist there were. Models and maps show in great detail the huge star shaped fortifications, with multiple prows of wall sticking out into the defensive plain on three sides and the river on the last. These were successful in keeping Vienna out of Ottoman control for hundreds of years, including the 1529 Siege of Vienna and the siege that was the prelude to the 1683 Battle of Vienna.


As such Vienna was always the limit of the Ottoman empire, and after the Ottoman Empire started to decline it's lands were take by the Holy Roman empire and fell under Hapsburg control. On my route this truly makes Vienna the end of the eastern influence, the first place not controlled at some point by the Ottomans.

The museum does a good job of describing and explaining the history up to 1900, but then the narrative abruptly stops. We never learn about the eventual dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian empire and the forming of the Austrian Republic; a story that I feel would be worth telling, as well as Vienna's life as a diplomatic and espionage hotspot during the Cold War.

Having failed to find a tour in the morning I try my luck again in the afternoon with more success. A happy spherical man appears at the appointed time wearing the uniform of an official guide along with a few of this morning's other thwarted tour-goers. This tour has a theme of courtyards and backstreets, for which some of the other visitors collect stamps in a loyalty card for Vienna walking tours. History doesn't strike me as a 'listen to six centuries of history and get the seventh free' product, but apparently so.

We start at the Scottish Church (a misnomer based on a long gone cloister of Irish monks that existed near that spot in 1100) before heading up a small slope that was once part of the city walls and then diving into one of the many little courtyards that exist inside many old Viennese apartment buildings. We're taken through various Durchhauser, private residences that allow access to courtyards or other houses, a result of Vienna's often cramped growth behind the fortified walls, which meant that streets couldn't always be built to all buildings. Many buildings and apartments are only accessible through other buildings and often facilities like fresh water were shared in these common courtyards.

At this point the guide points out as small flat in a pink painted building and declares it to be one of the many apartments where Beethoven lived while he was in Vienna. The guide leans forward and conspiriotorally tells us that over the years the number of residences that Beethoven is purported to have lived in has steadily been rising, and that at some point soon there will be evidence that the itinerant composer has lived in almost every building within the Ringstrasse.

Our last stop is the Minoritenkirche, a church founded by followers of St Francis of Assisi. Inside is a large mosaic of the Last Supper, based on the Da Vinci painting, which was commissioned by Napoleon. It took eight years to complete and weighs twenty tonnes, but by the time it had been finished Napoleon had been exiled and wasn't able to pay for or accommodate the grand work. Instead a Viennese relative picked up the tab, the result of which was that the Emperor of France's mosaic is now on the wall of a church in the Austrian capital. Before leaving us the guide takes us through the sordid details and blunders of the 1913 Redl affair, in which shortly before World War I, Austrian's chief counter-intelligence officer was found out to be a Russian spy.

At the end of the tour we're left outside the famous Central Cafe. The most well known of the Viennese Grand Cafes that allowed aspiring writers and poets (including Leo Tolstoy) the comfort of a warm space in exchange for buying only the occasional cup of coffee. Vienna used to have hundreds of Grand Cafes, but now they're almost all gone. I don't know if the growth of Starbucks and it's more recent friends have had the same effect, somewhere sipping a Grande Frappuccino is an impoverished poet whose genius we're not yet aware of.

I spend the next couple of hours slowly wandering around the grand marvels and small streets of Vienna. This is the dead time after five but before a reasonable dinner hour. Without a hostel to return to, I'm on another sleeper train tonight, I have nowhere particular to go. So I take a very leisurely stroll into St Stephen's Cathedral, around the university and through the Christmas Market outside the Rathaus. The trees carry the glowing winter fruit of lanterns, multicoloured against the orange neon glow which illuminates the thousand small details carved into the elaborate frontage of the Rathaus.


Further round the ring-road sits the Austrian Parliament. A country that was once ruled by one of the longest dynasties in Europe now doesn't allow noble titles, but while the grand titles have gone, the architecture and self confidence of the city won't let you forget them.

For dinner I decide that, having had Cevapcici in Belgrade and goulash in Budapest I'd better have Weiner Schnitzel in Vienna, otherwise I'm going to regret not completing a food stereotypes hat-trick. I pick the Kojote restaurant on Berggasse and am delighted to be served a plate of three broad and incredibly thin Wiener Schnitzel, fried, as per tradition, in fine breadcrumbs.

Ever since reading a Micheal Palin biography that describes the comic and traveller's frequent habit of going to restaurants by himself and reading I've tried draw inspiration from this; if it's good enough for Michael Palin it's good enough for me. I'd prefer to be eating dinner with a friend, but in this case Robert Ciadini's book Influence is pleasant enough company. I shouldn't feel self-conscience about it, plenty of the other people seem to manage, but like going to the cinema alone, where even if you don't talk to anyone during the film, there's something that doesn't seem quite right.

After finishing the last of the beer (long since warm) that I've been nursing I pay up, collect my rucksack from the hostel and find my train at the Westbahnhof. While cleaner and more modern then the sleeper trains in Bulgaria and Serbia, being busier the train feels less comfortable than my previous night trains. My compartment has four bunks, the one opposite me is occupied by a quiet Austrian who replies happily to my "Hello", then makes himself comfortable on his bunk while trying to use the least possible space. With the four bunks, of a possible six, laid out, there is very little room left in the compartment.  The bottom two are unoccupied, but the conductor tells us that they'll be filled overnight at one of the stops.

We turn the light out, but through the thin walls can hear the excited shouts and gossiping of a group in the next compartment. My cabin mate gives me a resigned smile and says "Sadly you can't choose your neighbours". I agree with him, while trying to work out if he's making a deeper philosophical point, but undermine its possible extra meaning by offering him some spare foam earplugs I have. Perhaps you can't choose your neighbours, or in the case of the Vienna museum your history, but you can choose to ignore some things.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Istanbul to Bristol 13 - Into the West

Budapest, 4th December 2012.

"Step back please."

The crowd shuffles back and one of the two soldiers barks an order; they swing their swords up in unison, pause, and swing them down again into a new position. Then the soldiers are silent and still once more.

"The guards move their sword arm every fifteen minutes so they don't fall asleep." explains the guide in a slightly bored voice.

More cautiously than when we first arrived, our tour group shuffles back towards the thick glass case between the soldiers that holds the Holy Crown of Hungary. The golden crown is ringed with a series of enamel pictures and topped with its famous slightly wonky cross; the result of the crown being hastily hidden in a chest that was too small for it.

The central hall where the crown rests is, like the rest of the interior, gold, intricate and one feels excessively ornate. Anything that could be covered in gold is. The only parts of the walls and ceilings that aren't covered in gold give the impression of having been spared only so you notice the next bit is gold again, instead of being a monotonous shiny surface. After the crown room we're led down an imposing staircase and along red carpeted corridors into one of the two identical assembly chambers.

Until 1945 the Hungarian Parliament had two chambers, upper and lower, but since the 1989 founding of the Hungarian Republic the lower chamber is used for the single national assembly that rules Hungary. The old upper chamber, which we're shown, is kept as an ever ready back-up and for the occasional use as a double in films or television programs. Like the rest of the building the decoration in the chamber itself is not subtle; gold and dark polished wood are abundant in the tightly packed seating, the walls and the ceiling. Great coats of arms belonging to former Hungarian noble families hang along the walls.

Outside the chamber we're shown a cigar holder in the form of a long scalloped rail. Smoking in the chambers has long been forbidden, but smoking in the rest of the building was only banned recently. During the duller parts of speeches and debates senators would nip into the corridor for a few puffs of their slowly smouldering cigars, leaving the cigar in the rack again when returning to the chamber. If a speech was so riveting or important that the member didn't leave, and their cigar burnt down without them, it was regarded as being good enough to be 'worth a Havana', an expression for something good that is apparently still used occasionally in Hungary today.

For lunch we've been recommended a traditional Hungarian food restaurant named after the nation's favourite spice; Paprika, located on the south west corner of the City Park. To get there Ste and I walk up the long and grand Andrássy Avenue, another of Budapest's World Heritage sites. The wide avenue is lined with mansions, upmarket shops and restaurants. Close to the city centre everything is well kept and glamorous. As we get out towards the City Park and Hero's Square, where the avenue ends, the upkeep of the buildings becomes more variable.

There are a lot of embassies along the avenue, all well kept, but between them is the occasional run-down and unloved town house. Peeling paint, rusty railings and sooty brickwork show that while no-one who owns a property on this prestigious address wants to give it up, not all can afford the upkeep.

Turning right at Hero's square, its singular tall column rising out of the flat parade ground, we carry on along the edge of the park. We can see the open air natural baths steaming lightly in the cold air, the chatter and cry of bathers enjoying the warmth drifts towards us. Sadly Ste and I don't have time to join them and the surprisingly long walk up Andrassy Avenue has left our minds firmly focused on lunch.

On the edge of the park is another memorial to the 1956 uprising. This modern sculpture rises out of the ground with a polished steel prow rippling and buckling the cobbles before it like an icebreaker. As it slopes back towards the ground the smooth polished surface breaks into individual pillars, each becoming more tarnished and shorter the further from the point they are. The shape also starts to break apart into individual pillars as it sinks and broadens, becoming less defined and sharp in form. The metaphor is easy to understand; together people can achieve more, uniting to a sharp, unstoppable force, even if the constituents are weak and rusty on their own.

Eventually we arrive at the Paprika restaurant. The insides are decorated to make you think of a rural peasant's house, heavy timber beams in the roof, large stones protruding from the corners of the room, breaking out from the patches of smooth plaster. Even the chairs are made of large chunks of wood, to look like they were assembled made out of bits of tree that happened to be lying around. The food is excellent, stodgy and much more convincing in its authenticity than the décor. I eat a goulash with nokedli, a sort of small rough egg noodle (also known as Spätzle in some German speaking countries).

After lunch we return via the metro and its unnervingly fast escalators to the city centre. Here we visit St Stephen's basilica, which we walked past yesterday. Just inside the incredibly tall wooden doors a priest is standing next to the large collection box, eyeing every entrant and listening carefully for the twin clinks of the 'voluntary donation' landing on the shifting heap of coins within. Before us a visitor drops in his coins, but they land simultaneously and clink only once, causing the priest to step forwards and starts shouting at him. The man protests, waving his arms in defence, making the motion of two coins sticking together, but the priest suffers no protests and just looks more cross, gesticulating angrily and pointing at the door we've come through. The visitor then digs another coin out of his pocket and drops it with sarcastic theatricality into the donation box. Ste and I are careful to ensure our coins drop separately. 

The theme I've seen in Eastern Orthodox churches continues here in the Catholic basilica; dark marble and deep shadows from which gold can be seen faintly glinting. You can feel the weight of the stone, gold, symbolism and history of the building. Clearly something sacred, but weighed down with the baggage of the past. The many small security cameras and holy statues let you know you're being watched and judged through modern technology and ancient theology. On the way out we notice the brass sign on the exit door still says 'Ausgang'; so not all the signs of Budapest's previous bilingualism have been removed quite yet. 

We collect our bags from the apartment, say goodbye to Alex and return to the metro station. I say farewell to Ste, my brave companion of the last few days. Ste will fly back to London later tonight, but I have to catch a train to Vienna earlier tonight to keep my schedule. 

Back again at Keleti station the Austrian Railways (OBB) RailJet train is already waiting at the platform, the engine feels massive as you walk past the gently humming air vents. It's almost as if you can feel the electrical eddies of the huge motors and magnets inside passing through you. Unlike most other high speed trains the driving power is not distributed between the carriages, it all comes from this one neat and minimally appointed engine. The inside design matches that of the outside; understated, unfussy and uncluttered. Perhaps a bit cold for some people's taste, but it feels very clean and refreshing compared to the dusty compartments of the last few trains.

It's already dark as we pull out of the station. After a busy few minutes shaking left and right the train finds the correct track and we start to accelerate. From the darkness outside the windows I can't tell how fast we're moving, there are only occasional lights, but the screen in the middle of the carriage ceiling tells us that we're doing a comfortable two hundred kilometres an hour. So I settle down and relax knowing I haven't travelled this fast since my plane landed in Istanbul.

I'm shaken from my book by a text message telling me that I'm now on an Austrian mobile phone network. With that low-key announcement I've entered western Europe. With Hungary being part of the Schengen agreement there is no passport control or stamp to welcome me to Austria. It seems such a strange concept that just over twenty two years ago that travel between the then Eastern Bloc and the West was impossible for most people. Now you're barely even told when it happens. I look out of the dark windows for some sign to confirm that I'm in Austria, that this is now 'The West' and fundamentally a different place somehow, but in an unlit darkness all countries look equal.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Istanbul to Bristol 12 - Budapest


Budapest, 3rd December 2012.

A dog's bark echos around the quiet dark courtyard as I sit in the kitchen drinking some water. The building the hostel occupies part of is a slightly disheveled grand old Hungarian apartment building, located a couple of blocks from the parliament. The stairs have loops for carpet rods, and Alex, the congenial host of the Centrum hostel, apologetically joked that he hadn't had time to put the red carpet back in for our arrival. As Ste and I are the only guests at this quiet time of year we've been given the small apartment that adjoins the hostel.

The apartment has been lovingly refurbished, with some of changes clearly more made of love than common sense. The light switches for the main room are now hidden behind a creaky pine staircase and the downstairs bedroom is divided by a double bed that reaches wall to wall.

I look at the free tourist map that Alex scribbled on furiously last night, high-lighting all the sights we should see in our brief visit. There isn't a grid square free of the energetic biro circles and arrows that he used to mark out his recommendations. There's a lot of do in Budapest.

We make a start by crossing the Chain Bridge over the Danube to Buda in the freezing wind. Hungarian and Czech flags snap and flutter along the edge of the bridge, which looks very similar to the Clifton suspension bridge in Bristol. After the short climb up the winding road we reach the terrace of Buda Castle, looking back over the low-rise of Pest, with the parliament and St Stephen's cathedral domes standing clear above the rest of the city.

I snap away a few time with my camera, taking photos I know won't be terribly interesting to look at, but I want to have anyway. Ste is more reserved. He's only brought a film camera, so he takes the occasional photo, carefully composed and balanced. This is what I see as the difference between 'real' photography and just taking photos. Those pictures of a night out with friends, you at the Eiffel Tower or a family photo in the back garden; they mean something to you, but not to someone who isn't already emotionally involved with the people or place depicted.

I suppose here I'm categorising 'real' photographs as ones which are self contained. They convey a meaning,  a feeling or an interest of their own without the support of memory. The balancing of light and dark, the narrative in the picture or the high-lighted normally overlooked elements allow the photo to be complete on its own; no need to be linked to the people of place the photo is of.

There has been a fortification on site of Buda Castle since the 13th century, in the 16th century it was sacked and then occupied by the Ottoman Turks to become part of the Ottoman empire until 1686 when it was almost completely destroyed in a great siege as allied Christian forces took control of Budapest. In the bright sunlight we notice occasional bullet holes and repairs of small slightly mis-coloured patches in much of the stonework; scars of the heavy destruction that the current palace suffered in the siege of Budapest in 1944-45, its most recent conflict. In the UK I think we rarely realise how fortunate we to be an island, with clear geographic boarders that have allowed us to stay (relatively) clear of conflict at home over the centuries. Hungary, like the Balkans south of it, has been swept repeatedly by tides of opposing powers and armies.

Ste and I continue onto the bright white stone of the Fisherman's bastion and the colourful roof of the Mathias church, admiring both sites briefly before the cold persuades us seek warmth and food. We wander down the winding streets back towards the Danube and find a cafe to warm up in.


At two thirty we try our luck with another free walking tour, after our excellent experience in Belgrade. We arrive at the prescribed bus stop to find a thin student standing by himself next to a single speed bike and holding a folded and tatty laminated piece of paper saying: 'Free Tours'. After waiting another five minutes no-one else turns up for the tour, leaving Ste and I as the only guests on today's round. The guide introduces himself as Adam and seems unfazed by only having a small audience, he unlocks his bike and wheels it alongside himself as we set off.

Ste and I are shuffling along trying to keep warm in the icy wind; Adam is only wearing a thin jacket and no gloves. His only concession to the cold is a beanie hat that I suspect he's wearing more for reasons of fashion than to stay warm.

Adam starts by explaining that the Hungarians are a friendly but boastful people, so we should be careful of sights advertised as 'biggest in central Europe', 'longest in Eastern Europe' or 'oldest in Western Europe' as depending on which superlative is being sought Hungary can position itself almost anywhere within Europe to make sure it looks its best. As we wander up Hercegprimas Street Adam explains the history of the various peoples that have lived in the area now known as Hungary. We stand for a moment and admire the grand neo-classical Roman Catholic basilica of St Stephen, named after Hungary's first king and erected to honour his converting the hungarians from paganism to Christianity.

As we stand opposite the basilica a familiar voice calls "Hello!" and we turn to see the professor from yesterday's train journey rushing towards us with a smile on his face.

"I was just in the cafe there with a friend and saw you through the window, so thought I should say hello." He shakes our hands warmly, introduces himself to Adam and then takes his leave to return to his friend who is waiting in the warmth of the cafe. In less than twenty-four hours Hungary has become a lot smaller and friendlier.

We continue onto Freedom Square (Szabadság tér), the former site of an Austrian barrack that was demolished when Hungary become an equal partner in the Austro-Hungarian empire. As we look at the grand buildings of former banks and stock exchanges that flank the square Adam tells us of his memories under communist rule.

Adam was only very young, but still remembers times when there wasn't bread or other simple foodstuffs available, and getting what was available involved queuing for hours. Somethings were almost impossible to get, and so very desirable; such as blue denim jeans. Apparently there was a huge black market, mostly supplied by visiting western travellers, in jeans. Those who owned them would often rent them onto friends for special occasions, like dates. For girls especially wearing jeans on a date was meant to show that you had good connections and so could help provide for a future family.

Travel was very restricted, but Adam and his family were lucky to have relatives outside Hungary, which meant they could get travel visas. More importantly this meant they could buy luxury items in Austria with the limited money you were allowed to take with you on your travels. This way they would smuggle back things like coffee and pencils that couldn't be bought in Hungary. One common trick for families with small children was to get their children to fall asleep on a pile of coats which hid the valuable goods. The boarder guards wouldn't disturb the sleeping child as long as they saw the child's passport. To this day he and his friends of a similar age have to fight hard against their automatic response to fall asleep if they're travelling from Austria to Hungary.

We walk on beyond a gold star topped soviet war memorial to a bronze statue of Ronald Reagan, there as thanks to Reagan for helping to bankrupt communism and bring freedom to Hungary. A little onwards we stop at the statue of a small man in a long coat and hat standing on a bridge with his back to the soviet memorial and his face turned to the parliament building.

The unassuming looking bronze man is Imre Nagy, who was Hungary's leader during the 1956 revolution that was brutally crushed by soviet Russia. He was a devoted Marxist, but did not believe in the form of communism he saw and proposed reforms such as a multi-party system that the Russian politburo didn't approve of. After the revolution was crushed he was tried and executed in secret. Until the 1989 fall of communism his name wasn't allowed to be spoken in public.

Across the road are further reminders of the bloody suppression of 1956. A building opposite the parliament has hundreds of small metal spheres attached to it, each marking the bullet hole of a shot fired at unarmed protestors by army snipers. In the square outside the parliament itself stands a hungarian flag with a circular hole in the centre. To use the flag as their own the 1956 revolutionaries cut out the communist emblem at the middle of it, showing their belief in Hungary, but not oppressive communism.

While Adam hasn't been affected by the cold during our two hour tour, I've lost all feeling in my toes and Ste is furiously rubbing his gloved hands together, so we stand in a metro entrance while Adam marks a few bars and cafes on our map. He's in good agreement with Alex and ends up mostly underlining ones already marked. We thank Adam for his great tour and taking the time for just the two of us. We tip him, probably excessively, but feel for what was a personal service that it was easily deserved.

Ste and I look for a pre-dinner drink in the highly recommended Di Vino wine bar, which both Adam and Alex claimed wasn't too expensive, especially for western tourists like ourselves. Given my very limited knowledge of wine we decide it is best if Ste goes to the bar to order while I do something I'm more qualified for; like finding a seat, which I manage to do on the long padded bench in the gently lit and elegant looking back of the bar.

Ste returns holding two oversized glasses and a good portion of wine in each with news that he'd spent the last of our Florins, which we'd assumed would last for the entire duration of our stay. While I don't have a good appreciation of wine, what I'm drinking tastes excellent and was well worth the money. We chat about various diverse topics while watching the local well-to-do and groups of upper market tourists come and go.

Feeling poor, but hungry, we head towards less the expensive bars and restaurants of the jewish quarter. In a long series of courtyards we find a busy looking restaurant that serves Hungarian food. The interior is smartly decorated, the bar is fronted with beer crates and the lighting comes from upturned step-ladders hanging from the ceiling that are studded with lightbulbs.

I eat an enjoyably simple meal, minced pork meat wrapped in cabbage leaves, somewhat at odds with the fashionable surroundings. Perhaps this is the Hungarian equivalent of a gourmet burger or fish and chips served in up-market pubs, the sort of place where ketchup comes in a small ramekin. After dinner we head a little further south, looking for the Szimpla bar, which we've been told was selected by Lonely Planet as the best bar on Earth. When we get to the entrance it still looks very quiet, so we go to the smaller and more welcoming looking Fashion Bar opposite. The inside is decorated like a clothes shop with lots of mismatched tables and chairs, in the window stand a few armless dummies.

Each bar has a very different variety of lagers on offer, in this case it was Keserű Méz, served in a stein with an cyberpunk girl logo. I don't know if it's because there is a wide variety of beer available in Hungary or if the bars are affiliated with different small breweries, but unlike Belgrade there doesn't seem to be a particular big brand of beer you could reliably find in each bar; and that's not a complaint.

After watching more people head through the industrial plastic curtains of Szimpla's entrance, Ste and I head across. The inside is graffitied bare concrete walls that are colourfully lit with a variety of fairy lights. The centre has an atrium filled with ferns and palms. A DJ is playing generic dance music loudly from his command and control booth on the top floor. For a  Monday night it's quite busy, but there isn't a serious hard partying buzz, understandable given it's the start of the week. Most of the other drinkers appear to be tourists like us, but mostly in bigger groups, as well as students.


We sit and continue to chat, but the music makes it hard and the popularity of the bar has clearly had an effect on the prices. Feeling old man-ish and cheap, we decide to head out and look for somewhere you can talk more easily. Starting back towards the hostel we quickly find the quieter Szóda Kávézó és Mulató; red lit with giant manga murals on the ceiling. We go in and relax in the surprisingly low and comfortable chairs.

Here our amateur philosophising really takes off. With a good atmosphere and decent beer Ste and I get to work setting the World to rights. The details of what were discussed were clearly very important; vital to the world. So important that you can't remember them the next day. Whichever way the discussion ended, it ended late. The only firm conclusion we came to is that Budapest is great and everyone should visit.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Istanbul to Bristol 11 - The Professor


Belgrade, December 2nd 2012.

Our train pulls into Novi Sad station just over an hour after leaving Belgrade. We have been travelling across the vast wide open Pannonian Plan which makes up most of Serbia north of the capital. This enormous flat region is the meeting point of Central Europe, Eastern Europe and the Balkans, a fertile growing region for millennia, its fields are split between many countries. Our journey to Budapest will cover around 250km, all of them across this calm earthen sea.

At Novi Sad an older man with a close cropped white speckled beard, glasses and a receding, but smartly trimmed, hairline enters our carriage. He points at Ste's window seat and mumbles in English that he would like to sit there. Ste moves over and the man makes himself comfortable; placing a sandwich and two cans of Jelen larger on the small table in front of himself. He adjusts his cord jacket, pulls two textbooks from his bag and places them carefully on his knee. As we pull out of the station he opens one of the cans and takes a short sip.

Realising we speak English our new travelling companion introduces himself with a kindly smile as a philosophy professor from Budapest who's been in Novi Sad giving a guest lecture. His English is excellent, with a wide vocabulary that I sometimes fail to keep up with, and spoken with almost no accent. I compliment him on this, realising too late that this probably comes across as horribly patronising.

He asks about our travels and what we've seen so far. For his part he reveals that he is from Transylvania, a member of the large Hungarian speaking minority that live in the regions of Romania that were previously within Hungary, before the Treaty of Trianon. Another example of how shifting borders in this region move around the people that live within them.

The Professor comments on my e-reader, which I'm currently using to read Howard's End, and we start to talk about books. Apparently there is a great difference in the genres of books read in the UK and here. He has a relative in Scotland and visits London regularly, so gets to see the differences often. Biography and travel literature are unusual in Hungary. There is less of a fascination in an individual's impact here, people believe more that you are mostly influenced by the events around you, so reading a book focused on only an individual is not very interesting.

Regarding travel literature; Hungarians prefer to travel themselves, less to read about it while sitting still. Perhaps as a result of the long periods of travel restrictions that existed until the 1990s. He himself didn't travel outside Hungary or Romania until he was thirty, but has been busy catching up since.

We cross the boarder and the guards inspect our passports. Shortly after a conductor comes by and checks our tickets. As he leaves the Professor remarks of the conductor's pony tail "How things have changed, that would never have been allowed before". We pass through a tunnel and the lights in the compartment don't come on, leaving us rattling along for a short while in darkness. He apologises and says normally the lights work. He recounts an experience he had when he was young and first travelling between Hungary and Romania. Then the trains barely had electricity and in the pitch black of a sleeper compartment his fellow travellers started talking. With the anonymity of the night they felt free to discuss politics and all the problems that you were not allowed to talk about in public, only possible in a safe confessional on wheels where no-one could be identified later.

As the flat horizon trundles by the conversation turns to politics, a subject our companion has clearly been involved in for a long time. He doesn't give any history of his political involvement, but the passion and well meaning concern he expresses demonstrates that it has occupied his mind for a long time.

He speaks of his students, and that most leave for Western Europe, with the UK being an especially popular destination. They see little future back home, where corrupt politicians blatantly carve up state assets and pass legislation that is only in their own interest. The power vacuum left by the collapse of communism has not be filled well. He quotes: "Leaving is a form of resistance" from a source neither Ste nor I are quick enough to remember. If those who can are leaving, especially the young, then the future is also leaving.

I mention the occasional language faux pas I'd made in Belgrade, accidentally using Croatian expressions from my phrase book, instead of the Serbian ones. I'd been led to believe that they were effectively the same language shared by the two countries, but did get a few funny looks when saying "Bog" instead of "Zdravo" for "Hello".

The Professor says this is becoming more common, that languages in the region are being changed for political reasons to try and reinforce national identities by having a unique language. Previously the Balkan and Central European countries were very multi-lingual; most people spoke many languages. While not always to a high standard, they could communicate with their neighbours or the different ethnic groups within their boundaries without problems. This is now changing; the split of Serbo-Croatian and its dialects into separate languages is only one recent example.

Budapest, he complains, used to be a bilingual city, all the street names were both in German and Hungarian. Even into the late 1960s you could speak in German and expect to be understood. Now you can't even order a glass of water in German. After the first World War a big effort was made to remove signs of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Also many words of Latin origin were replaced with 'more Hungarian' words. A theatre used to be called a "teatra", but is now a "színház" - which is a combination of the words meaning drama/play and house - apparently superior because it doesn't sound like a word shared with other languages.

Now most people only speak one language, which means their horizons are much smaller. It also means that they find it much harder to understand how language itself shapes your understanding and interpretation of information. He describes a lecture he was asked to give in Budapest on the Vienna Circle, an influential group of philosophers that gathered in Austria in the early twentieth century. All their texts were written in German, so he prepared his lecture in German, to be able to use the source material directly. Five minutes after he started one of the organisers stopped him and quietly asked him to continue in English or Hungarian; which he duly did. "Incredible!" he says, that these students weren't able to read these important texts, part of their own recent philosphohical tradition, in its native language, a language that plays a huge role in their cultural history.



He claims that there is a rise in fascism in Central Europe as countries believe more and more in their own exceptionalism; the artificial fracturing of languages is just one sign of this. The sudden collapse of communism meant that many external organisations, such as the European Union, foreign companies and the International Monetary Fund quickly started to gain influence and direct what was happening. While they often had good intentions it has resulted in resentment against these nebulous, outside influences. They weren't given power by voters, but have a big effect on how the country is run and what happens. This has made these international organisations into easy scapegoats for economic and social problems, used by self-serving politicians for their own gain and fuelling a fascist reaction against these 'alien' influences. He is scared by much of the recent political rhetoric that is reminiscent of language used in the 1930s; with its talk of corrupting external influences, enemies within under foreign control and identifying elements of the population that apparently aren't patriotic. This has partly manifested itself in the extreme right wing Jobbik party gaining twelve percent of the seats in the Hungarian parliament in the 2010 election.

Outside the light is beginning to fade and the outskirts of Budapest begin to grow. The illuminated sign of a Tesco supermarket surprises Ste and me; probably not the best example of a foreign company to bring to Hungry. "They've been accused of union breaking and sharp practice" comments our Professor as we remark on Tesco's unexpected appearance. "But if you pay the right people, the government can make that problem go away" he finishes darkly.

We pull into Budapest Keleti station and say our goodbyes. While the eight hours to travel 250km seems very slow, it was eight hours well spent. Through the good fortune of a chance encounter Ste and I were able to learn much that we had not thought about before.

Much of the time I was struggling to keep up with the Professor's wide and deep deliberations, often on areas I know little about. But he is obviously and experienced teacher and could see when we were having difficulty with some of his references and re-phrased the ideas or concepts.

Politics, philosophy and history are all subjects where I know little, but since leaving university have become more interested in learning about. Probably this is because I used to only be able to see the practical applications of technical subjects, like engineering. These skills can be used obviously to produce useful things like clean water, light, heat, clothes, food and aircraft etc.

But as I grow up I see more of the value of these liberal subjects, subjects that are more universal to understanding the human condition, even if the conclusions are often as confusing and unclear as the problems they are trying to address, unlike the neater answers of physics and engineering. This train journey was a fantastic master class in how history, politics, language and philosophy all link together to help explain the current human world we inhabit. While we may each be prejudiced to over-estimate the importance of those subjects we understand well, this experience was a great reminder of how little we know and how rewarding being exposed to something new can be.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Istanbul to Bristol 10 - Nikolai Tesla


Belgrade, December 1st 2012.

A half-metre long purple spark leaps to the grounding plate with a loud bang. In my hands a fluorescent tube flickers and begins to glow unevenly, bright and dark patches of light pulsate inside. The tube isn't connected to anything. I'm holding it gingerly in my hands and around me others are doing the same with more tubes. We form a semi-circle around a humming three metre high Tesla coil, all looking at the sparking polished dome, tentativly holding our glowing tubes like some strange electrical religious rite, nervous that an angry god is going to lash out and shock us if we hold the tube incorrectly. I look over to Ste who grins nervously back, copying what I imagine my face is doing. We know it's safe, but the irregular bang of the giant spark doesn't let us believe that.

The tubes flicker and go out, returning to reassuring lifelessness, as the smiling guide turns off the Tesla coil and the humming sound winds down. We return the fluorescent tubes with relief and a growing macho sense of survival. Gathering the tubes in the guide smiles happily to herself; clearly having enjoyed scaring a group of adults, unable to hide the joy of having seen very young children do the same without showing any fear.

Ste and I are being guided through the small but excellent Nikolai Tesla Museum, which is filled with various bits of apparatus that demonstrate the many scientific principles Tesla discovered or applied in his life. After the giant tesla coil comes a demonstration of the world's first remote control boat. When shown for the first time in Central Park, onlookers refused to believe it was being controlled by invisible wireless electric signals and instead preferred the more obvious explanation that Tesla was steering it remotely with the power of his thoughts.

Tesla was an eccentric genius whose life plays to the stereotypes of a mad genius, which makes him easy to love. My favourite fact is presented during a slightly corny video about his life at the end of the tour by a narrator with a big ernest American voice: that when Tesla arrived in New York he had nothing but the clothes he wore, two dollars and the plans for a flying machine.

Ste and I leave the museum with big grins on our faces, but also a massive sense of underachievement, having not invented or discovered any great contributions to science in our almost thirty years of being on the planet.

Next we wander briefly up and down Kneza Miloša, a long straight road that has many old and grand government buildings along it as well as the majority of the embassies in Belgrade. Most are relatively nondescript town houses, with only the flags that hang outside giving away their diplomatic status. The biggest exception is the US embassy, which has had all of its windows bricked up and appears to be completely sealed up apart from a small heavy door at street level.

The biggest 'attraction' on Kneza Miloša are the bombed out remains of the former Yugoslav ministry of defence. The long thin building has many huge gauges in it, straggly bits of steel sticking out of the holes like metal weeds. Apparently once a fine example of post-war architecture, it is now an abandoned carcass, lines of missing windows let the air whistle through its bones. Much was made of the precision bombing, or the lack thereof in some cases, by NATO, the fact that these completely wrecked offices stand opposite rows of untouched buildings is remarkable. Mistakes were made (such as the accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy), but it is nothing like the complete raising of cities such as Dresden or Coventry that occurred fifty years before and can be done without the need to send pilots on dangerous low level bombing missions to achieve precision. Perhaps one of the biggest arguments against this, as with the more recent drone strikes, is that it can make the choice to engage in military action easier if the risks to you are much smaller. But wars have never been about a sense of fair play.

For the afternoon Ste and I join a free walking tour, taking us around the old town of Belgrade, starting in the Bohemian quarter and visiting a few of the oldest buildings in Belgrade. I've not done a lot of walking tours before, so perhaps it was normal, but Željko, our guide, was excellent and made it a fantastic way to learn about the city, and I plan to do more on future trips.

My biggest impression was the many different times Belgrade, at its strategic location on the Sava and Danube confluences, has been fought over. The oldest buildings are Ottoman Turkish in origin, but there are only a few left. Because Belgrade has been burnt down and fought over so many times, little has survived. On my trip many places claim to be the meeting of east and west, a mix of the two cultures. This is also true of Belgrade, but it appears that here the meetings were rarely friendly.

As we walk up to Belgrade Fortress from the zoo we come across blue faced celtic warriors, standing around in bright yellow jackets, kilts and idly smoking. As we continue through the Fortress, noting the existence of Roman elements in the construction of the walls, more celtic warriors, and a few men in chain-mail, walk past nonchalantly. Eventually it turns out that we haven't stumbled upon a strange continuation of an old war but the filming of a medieval film. We pass across the bridge to the gate house to see a camera crew and lighting rig set up, cables running across the cobbled floor and a small table of hot drinks, currently under occupation by more kilted men.

By the end of the tour Ste and I are very hungry. We've been powered through the day so far by the hearty meat burek we each at breakfast. A burek is a sort of pastry with a mince, spinach or cheese filling, traditionally eaten with fluid yogurt. Described with a beaming smile the evening before as 'heavy, meaty, good' by the hostel manager we could hardly refuse; and all those things proved to be true, sustaining us through most of a busy day.

Now that we're flagging we return to the bohemian quarter of Skadarlija and find a bar to cool our heels in. We land in the first one we see and, try a couple of rakija, the local spirit, and drink a beer, while watching the other patrons. Most seem to be local yuppies, others less formally dressed are watching the football on the flat-screen TVs hanging on the wall. The glowing green pitches clashing with the otherwise dim red lighting of the bar. One couple are making nervous signs of intimacy at each other while checking their phones, both still dressed in office clothes. Is this an affair with real-time alibis being written on their Facebook profiles?

For dinner we choose one of the many tavernas that occupy Skadalija, somewhat worried that we're walking straight into a tourist trap. The waitress's offer to sit us where a band is roving between tables doesn't help. Given our inability last night to enjoy the entertainment without landing in a spiral of confused manners and social etiquette we elect to sit in the quiet area instead. Dinner is, as expected, a choice of hearty Serbian food: meatballs, fried potatoes and sausages. As we sit and enjoy dinner our quiet eating space starts to fill up. Groups of young serbians, a few couples and groups of friends appears, dispelling our earlier fears that the restaurant was only for tourists.

After dinner we cross over the street and down some steps into a low ceilinged bar, busy with people and an acoustic folk cover band performing in the front room. Belgrade has suffered from being between the warring empires of east and west, but it doesn't seems to have affected the ability of the people who live here to enjoy themselves. Maybe that's the secret to having a good time; experience tells you that it won't last so you have to make the most of it while you can.