The Battle of my Bulge, and the Hohes Venn

Though most of Europe is nowadays a union, their individual country borders are still very important. Trust me, I have witnessed it this weekend while camping in the picturesque Monschau area of the Eifel. A Dutch guy parked his caravan with the entire a-frame encroaching into the neighbouring German lady’s camping site, and she had none of that (understandably). After an amusing (for me), but serious altercation, and campsite management intervention, the Dutch guy was defeated, and with a lot of ‘brom-brom-brom’ had to swing his caravan by 90°. Only then peace and quiet once again dawned on this little piece of European Union. 

There’s a fascinating piece of borderline between Belgium and The Netherlands at Baarle-Nassau. Baarle-Nassau is closely linked, with complicated borders, to the Belgian exclaves of Baarle-Gertog. Baarle-Hertog consists of 26 separate parcels of land. Apart from the main parcel, known as Zondereigen and located north of the Belgian town of Merksplas, there are 22 Belgian exclaves in the Netherlands and three other parcels on the Dutch-Belgian border. There are also six Dutch exclaves located within the largest Belgian exclave, one within the second largest, and an eighth within Zondereigen. The smallest Belgian parcel, locally named De Loversche Akkers, measures 2,469 square metres – or if it actually is square, it means 49.69m x 49.69m! In political geography, an enclave is a piece of land that is surrounded by a foreign territory. 

On the German Belgian border, where Heleen and I spent three wonderful days of cycling, there are similar, though not as complicated, borderlines. I have previously written about the delightful Vennbahn cycle route and these enclaves, so apologies for the repeat, but it’s such a delightful cycling area, please bear with me.

The Vennbahn or Venn Railway route has been Belgian territory since 1919, under the Versailles Treaty. It was originally built by the Prussian Government to primarily transport coal and iron, roughly between Aachen and the north of Luxembourg. When the Treaty became permanent in 1922, it meant that five enclaves of German territory (originally six) were formed, with the ‘bahn’ (railway track) a thin line of just a few meters of Belgium with Germany on both sides. The smallest German exclave, Rückschlag, consists of a house and a garden, some 155m x 100m according to my rough Google Earth measurements. I think I love cycling the Vennnahn cycle route for the feel and history of it because of the stunning railway remnants still visible; from old station platforms, railway signal posts and stop lights to the old station buildings. Maybe I love it for our daily stop at Kalterherberg station’s Waffelhaus for a cappuccino and sometimes a Belgian waffle, which really is so much better than any other waffle in the world; except maybe the Scottburgh Wimpy in the early 80’s?

A practical benefit of the open borders nowadays – on Sunday we stopped in Roetgen at a small supermarket to by an onion and iced coffees. The ‘left’ side of the road was in Belgium, where shops are open on Sundays, while across the road on the ‘right’ side, the shops were closed, because in Germany, the shops are closed on Sundays. We had onion on our burgers that evening, and ‘woema’ in our tanks for the Hautes Fagnes climbs ahead.

The area of Belgium is known as the Hohes Fenn, or Higland Moorland. The highland moor, which acts as a natural water reservoir, is the source of half a dozen rivers, including the Rur, Olef, Warche, Schwalm and Our. 

The area where we cycled our 170km falls lock stock and barrel in the so-called Battle of the Bulge. The terrain is not all friendly and I indeed did battle with my bulge as well, but then decided I’ll only lose it if I stop those beer and waffle stops! Why would I cycle then?

The Battle of the Bulge was sort of Hitler’s last serious offense to try and prevent Antwerp as harbour to the Allies, before he hit the road, blew up the Bridge at Remagen as part of his retreat and took refuge in a bunker in Berlin for a while (not historically accurate, but you get my drift). However, it wasn’t all plain sailing for the American forces in this mountainous area. ‘The Hürtgen Forest occupies a rugged area between the Rur River and Aachen. This Rur is not the same river as the other Ruhr. The other Ruhr River has a ‘h’ in it, and is the water vein of that German industrial area which we all learned about in standard 4 geography. But this Rur is actually the same river as the Dutch Roer, and which flows into the Maas River at the stunning town of Roermond. In the autumn and early winter of 1944, the weather was cold, wet, and cloudy, and often prevented air support. Apart from the poor weather, the dense forest and rough terrain also prevented proper use of Allied air superiority, which had great difficulties in spotting any targets. The dense conifer forest is broken by few roads, tracks, and firebreaks; vehicular movement is restricted. Conditions on the ground became a muddy morass, further impeding vehicular traffic, especially heavy vehicles such as tanks’ (Wikipedia)

Its in similar terrain, bordering the Hürtgen forest in the Parc Naturel Hautes Fagnes or Hohes Venn where I battled my bulge, but on impeccable infrastructure. It remains, for me as a South African, incredible to be in fairly remote and secluded parts of these European forests, just to see a young lady strolling her Sunday stroll alone, and on two-meter-wide tarmac cycle roads for many kilometres, nogal.

In the hilly forest of our daily start, is the interesting Kloster Reichenstein, which is currently being restored and where monks will soon again reside. In 1639, in the middle of the 30 year war, Stepfan Horrichem was put in charge of the Reichenstein Monastery as prior. Horrichem dedicated himself with full commitment to the consolation and assistance of the suffering population. Sometimes disguised as a farmer, he went from farm to farm and village to village to protect himself from infringement. In doing so, he earned respect, prestige and even admiration from the needy population. Next to the forest road, is a remembrance plague to Prior Horrichem, which unfortunately reminds us of the many many conflicts of Europe, as we actually see in the Ukraine at the moment.

You don’t have to be a cyclist, nor a camper, to visit and explore and enjoy this amazing part of Germany and Belgium, but to spend time in some of these slightly more remote nature-based camp sites in Europe, is highly recommended. The beautiful clean rivers, lush forests and green farmland hills all convert into real and peaceful scenic beauty. 

Epic trip north – appetiser

‘Let’s head north’ said Heleen.

‘Okay, but let’s go all the way north’, I replied.

Everybody has some sort of travel wish list, and since I landed in Europe, 10 years and 3 days ago, driving to the Nordkapp, Europe’s most northern tip, have been one of my tick-box items.

Coming to a screen near you very soon, will be the trip report, photos and video footage of an epic 8327km driven to the northern most point of Europe over a three week epic road trip.

Road trip South Africa

Part 1 : Meandering the Karoo

“At first encounter the Karoo may seem arid, desolate and unforgiving, but to those who know it, it is a land of secret beauty and infinite variety.”
― Eve Palmer, Plains of Camdeboo: The Classic Book of the Karoo

 

Disclaimer note: I often use the Afrikaans terminology referring to this part of the world since I grew up with that terminology, and its been embedded as acceptable terms, e.g. veld – open, uncultivated country or grassland in southern Africa. It is conventionally divided by altitude into highveld, middleveld, and lowveld. There are other such terms I use throughout.

As soon as we decided to ‘go back home for Christmas’ I was in secret planning mode. And when Stean remarked, ‘I don’t really know the Karoo’, it was the last straw; my planning and dreaming and longing became acute. I asked Stean whether he wanted to see the Karoo and ‘He turned to me as if to say, “Hurry boy, it’s waiting there for you

We’ve been living in Germany for eight years, and though we’ve been back home many times, we’ve not been there for Christmas – a summer Christmas with family and friends like the days of old beckoned. I knew the underlying idea was to visit family for Christmas, but my wanderlust convinced me very quickly that driving the 1338km down to the Garden Route should never be done in just one day. There’s just too many distractions, stops to be made, and I needed time to show my children the Karoo en route to Wilderness.

IMG_1842
Enjoying the maize fields, irrigation system and wide open sky of the Highveld

I’m fortunate though, I have a brother who lives on the Highveld some 100km east of Pretoria, and a weekend relaxing there with a braai, good South African wines and long chats catching up on all and sundry to get rid of Europe’s cold before embarking on my road trip seemed the perfect start to 3 weeks of bliss in the South African ‘platteland’. The ‘Hoëveld’, or Highveld is that large portion of the South African inland plateau which consist mostly of rolling grassland and open open spaces.

 

 

In die Hoëveld, waar dit oop is en die hemel wyd daarbo, 
Waar kuddes waaigras huppel oor die veld,
Waar ‘n mens nog vry kan asemhaal en aan ‘n God kan glo, …

Toon van den Heever

 

Very freely translated it will read

 

On the the Highveld, where its open and the heaven wide above,

Where flocks of waving grass skips over the veld,

Where man can still breathe freely, and can believe in God, …’

Continue reading “Road trip South Africa”

Budapest, imitation, fake or glorious?

“Budapest is a prime site for dreams: the East’s exuberant vision of the West, the West’s uneasy hallucination of the East. It is a dreamed-up city; a city almost completely faked; a city invented out of other cities, out of Paris by way of Vienna — the imitation, as Claudio Magris has it, of an imitation.” 
― M. John Harrison, The Course of the Heart

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Well, I’m not sure, and to be fair the quote does stem from 1992, but what I am sure about is that visiting places for a third time is a privilege providing opportunity for looking at the same stuff afresh. This was my third visit to Budapest, 26 years after my first.

My first visit was in January 1994, when Budapest and Hungary were actually still busy stepping out from behind the Iron Curtain. In those days you could still feel the cold eastern atmosphere in the Budapest streets.  Strolling the streets in those days, you could see and feel the cold, grey and life’s weight on the residents but from a traveller’s perspective it was gloriously exciting. Since that trip, it has changed a lot. Budapest nowadays is a vibrant city, with a modern feel, many tourists ensuring the worldwide irritation of pedestrians texting while walking, selfie-sticks in abundance and English spoken everywhere. Don’t get me wrong when I refer to the latter negatively, but the globalised impact of being understood everywhere does dilute some of the traveling experience of old. It was exploratory on my first trip in 1994 to struggle being understood, adventuring through menus and using sign language to get to destinations or pointing at which ‘torta’ you want with your coffee. Nothing in Hungarian hints in any way to its English word, not to even think Afrikaans. Sitting in Ferenc Liszt Budapest airport just after arrival I was, for example, trying to find links between the Hungarian I saw on restaurant signs and English. Who would have thought that ‘péksütemények’ means ‘pastry’, or even shorter ‘deeg’ in Afrikaans? On that first trip, 26 years ago, there were no translate apps, no Googlemaps, nor commercial GPS’s, no Costas nor Starbucks and hardly any English; just the decent and proper ‘old world’ classy ‘cukrászda’ coffee establishments, such as Gerbeaud. Furthermore, in those old days, the clientele of Gerbeaud did not stroll in wearing hiking boots, loose hoodies and backpacks, they were dressed in old fashioned classy coats and scarves and vintage Fedora hats. In a sense, travel has become too easy, and dare I, who love wearing shorts, say, too casual?

Continue reading “Budapest, imitation, fake or glorious?”

About Belgium; the Battle, the Bulge, the Beer and the Braai

Belgium was never particularly high on my list. I’ve always loved the relaxed passion of the Mediterranean nations, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Southern France; the language and ‘joy de vivre’ of France and I was naturally intrigued by the Afrikaans heritage from the Netherlands. To my layman’s understanding of Belgium and Luxembourg they were sort of the mix that wondered whether they were French, Dutch or German, not excelling at one of them, yet thriving on their political stance as home base of the EU. Last year’s trip, (see Summer in the sombre ‘The Somme’) to Flanders was the beginning of my enlightenment, but having spent a magnificent six days over Easter in the Belgian Ardenne, opened my eyes and made me realise that Belgium was a full longed and proper travel destination where you need time to meander, read, listen and just sit around to observe. It is rich in history (not all of it is good though), culture, engineering and finesse. Belgium is sort of my new Number One – sorry Jacob.

We were based in a gîte just outside of Bastogne called Savy555 (find Christine on Booking.com – I recommend that) with a cosy fireplace for the relaxed evenings, a nice ‘stoep’ outside with stunning views over the spacious lawns towards the duck pond end. To perfect the amenities, there is a small braai for the good weather dinners I prepared.

Braai ≠ barbeque nor grill, but for clarity’s sake, let’s use those synonyms if you’re not South African

Continue reading “About Belgium; the Battle, the Bulge, the Beer and the Braai”

Summer in the sombre ‘The Somme’

Everybody has that one favourite T-shirt. Maybe you don’t even wear it anymore, for whatever reason. Maybe it is simply too worn-out or it has shrunk too much under your ageing belly, but you don’t have the heart to get rid of it. I have one too and mine has a quote, accompanied by the face of Nelson Mandela, stating

 

‘History depends on who wrote it’.

 

History may have two sides, but sometimes that history is simply so dark, so gruesome, that the different sides to the stories become irrelevant and the horror of the history is the only thing that stands out.

We loaded the grandparents and headed off to such an area, The Somme Valley in North Western France where that infamous battle raged from July 1 to November 1, 1916.

On 11 November this year, at 11:00 it will be the 100th celebration of the end of World War 1. That is the time and date when the armistice was signed between the Allied Forces and Germany – ‘on the 11thhour of the 11thday of the 11thmonth, 1918’.

We started with our round-trip by staying over in the Belgium beach town of Middelkerke. Though we enjoyed pleasant walks on the flat sandy beach with a backdrop of ugly Amanzimtoti style high-rise blocks of flats, I was aching to get into the hinterland and explore some battlefields. We found charming glamping tents on a pig farm Het Zeugekot (saying it like this sounds much less charming than it was), in Belgium near the small town of Beveren (Roesbrugge-Haringe), which was our base for a few days while we explored some battle sights, and the two charming charming cities of Ghent and Ypres. Be careful with some of these European landlords though. We unfortunately left the tent flaps open, as it was a sweltering heat wave of 39° C, and we weren’t back at the tent before a beautiful thunderstorm broke out. The storm did result in a couch cushion getting wet and needing a wash, but that little wash cost us the full deposit – a €150 wash that was!

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Middelkerke beach and ugly Amanzimtoti like blocks of flats

Ypres (or Ieper in Flemish – it is located in West Flanders and called sarcastically ‘Wiper’ by the English during the War) was heavily involved in World War I as the Battle of Ypres seethed here. War cemeteries and even trenches IMG_6409can be seen and visited all over this area. In the town itself I was mesmerised by the ‘Menin Gate War Memorial to the Missing’. Its a war memorial ‘gate’ where every evening at 20:00 the ‘last post’ is sounded as a gratitude from the people of Ypres to those who sacrificed their lives in battle. Its large Hall of Memory contains names on stone panels of 54,395 Commonwealth soldiers who died in the Salient but whose bodies have never been identified or found – simply missing.

Continue reading “Summer in the sombre ‘The Somme’”

Ireland’s call

‘Has anybody here seen Kelly?

K-E-double L – Y

Has anybody here seen Kelly?

Kelly with the Irish smile.

He’s as bad as old Antonio

Left me on my ownio –

Has anybody here seen Kelly?

Kelly from the Em’rald Isle’

 

It is one of those songs, which I cannot read the words without singing the tune. I still have the record (LP) ‘Come along and sing along’ with Charles Berman and company

Charles Berman
This LP gave me hours of pleasure growing up

which I’ve listened uncountable times as a kid growing up in Yellowwood Park, Durban. In my head this Em’rald Isle they mentioned was some exotic sunny island with coconut palms, white sandy beaches and hours of leisure in the sun. I simply had to one day visit it! It was with a big ‘Ahh, they talk about Ireland’ that I later learned what the Em’rald Island actually was, but it never tempered my curiosity to one-day travel over this island.

Nowadays the musical reference to Ireland is probably more Ed’s Galway Girl, and that too is a great song, rather than Kelly.

If I still had a slight expectation of sunny beaches and leisurely hours enjoying those sunny beaches in my head in anticipation of our 10 day Ireland trip, I was rudely jerked into reality when we received the message from Ryan Air about 36 hours before our flight informing us our flight was cancelled! Not delayed, sommer completely cancelled, gone, finish ‘en klaar’. Europe was caught in a week of serious snow and bad weather and Dublin airport was closed for a few days. After frantically phoning around and surfing around (the web kind, not the anticipated sunny waves kind of surfing), Cara was able to get us a 22:00 flight, for the Sunday evening! We were supposed to fly Thursday but had to wait until Sunday night. Before you think of my Ugly Story post and that infamous Lufthansa flight LH572, this was different and we accepted it as such, while keeping our eyes peeled to weather forecasts and news bulletins of the European weather scene. Oh, by the way, after 22 months, Lufthansa refunded us a few euros per ticket, of which the lawyers took nearly half.

We landed in Dublin at 23:30 Sunday night, picked up our rental car, grabbed a serious coffee or two or six, and headed into the snowy, misty darkness of the M4 and the 215km I had to drive to get to our Galway accommodation.

It was a good call to drive through to Galway that night, because we woke the next morning at our destination, with a view across the bay, and a little grocery store stocking real bacon, eggs and cheddar among a few other necessities just around the corner. English breakfasts instead of continental in itself is sufficient reason for visiting Ireland.

1.Waterval
Trickling waterfall in country side using iPhone and long exposure

Continue reading “Ireland’s call”

and into Yugoslavia (in 2015)

please click the thumbnails for a better view

From my previous post

If WW2 and Cold War is regarded as old school, our next destination entered areas of extreme scenic beauty and much more recent violent conflict. We headed to Croatia, which will be the topic of my next Blog post. For now I’ll leave

My house in Budapest

My hidden treasure chest,

Golden grand piano

My beautiful Castillo’

For mountain lakes, Dalmation beaches, islands, boat cruises and gripping historic learning.

Though often missed as a tourism destination, I made up my mind that Zagreb is a gem and secretly beautiful while genuinely worth a visit.

Its small and I was enthralled while strolling the inner city, just sitting and people watching (photographing) on Ban Jelacic Square or while browsing the open market Dolac. August though, was extremely hot and uncomfortable and after properly enjoying the shortest funicular in the world to elevate us to Gornji Grad or up-town Zagreb enjoying the magnificent Baroque architecture and descending throught the 13th century Kamenita vrata (Stone Gate) to Donji Grad or down-town, it was time to head into the hinterland, where the breathtakingly beautiful Plitvice Lakes awaited.

Plitvice Lakes National Park is one of those destinations better described by photos.

6.Plitvice Watervalle
Plitvice array of waterfalls

Its waters flow over limestone chalk, building over time various natural dams and waterfalls reminiscent of beaver dams over which one can only stand in awe and take in the wonders of Gods creation. The wooden walkways at the side of the lakes and little bush footpaths provide the opportunity for a leisurely workout in nature, building up a nice sweat while deciding which angles will make the best pictures and traversing the many ups and downs of this nature walk. Its not a tough walk, but it does take time and one should be prepared by at least carrying sufficient water with you. It’s a natural wonder, though, and should be included in any bucket list venturing in the direction of Croatia.

8.Plitvicemeer

 

But man steps in

 

Plitvice is also the sight where the first shots were fired in March 1991 when a policeman was killed as the start of the Croation independent war. Croatia was part of Yugoslavia during the communist era but splintered relations brewed as conflict for many years before the violent eruption in 1991. Croatia and Slovenia had a more liberal (imagine that irony, liberal communism) view and pushed for more autonomy versus the conservative hard-nosed Serbian side. Yugoslavia was a communist country since after WW1 and was made up of Serbia, Croatia, Macedonia, Slovenia, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

 

Traveling is not sight seeing

 

Therefor we enjoy and mostly try to find slightly more ‘authentic’ places to stay. Renting self-catering accommodation in these parts directly from local homeowners provide that ideal opportunity to meet and chat to the locals. We stayed with Ana, in Apartment Ana, in the sort of town area Smoljanac. The beauty of staying here was that you experienced rural Croatian daily life as well. You have the opportunity to buy your beer at the local little crocery shop, and take a seat at the wooden table outside on the street where the local labourers offer you their seats. Maybe because we’re foreigners or maybe because we had our parents with us, but still, six hardworking men, at the end of a long day and enjoying their Ožujsko beer without hesitance giving up their seats made me feel welcome, in an area where right in front of Apartments Ana you still see the sadness of a recent war in the soldier monument guarding the valley. Even today, some houses and building still show the bullet holes in the walls. Except for the tourism and accommodation side of this rural community, the existence is very much small scale farming where beans, tomatoes and corn are picked by hand, goats are milked by hand and all fresh produce produced locally for daily consumption.

9.Bulletholes
Bullet holes still clearly visible in some buildings along the route in the rural areas

 

Dinner at the friendly (or rather I think it was friendly judged by the smiles, service quality and interest in us as we have no idea of the Croatian language, and they very little of English, German and no Afrikaans) Pansion žafran, Smoljanac 88 was delightful. We started to learn more about the Croatian cuisine, realising the influences of what we know as Greek, Italian, Mediterranean and a few regulars from Germany featuring on our plates. There were amongst others schnitzels and pizzas but also cobanac (a delicious spicy meat stew), cevapcici (a type of skinless spicy sausage), burek (a type of pastry dish) and for desert rozata (a flan like caramel covered desert) to name just a few.

 

Self-drive hands you the scenic route

 

Take the scenic route. Stop at the war memorials and plan the extra time to enable you the wonderful sights of the Dalmation coast. That’s what I believe! There are 101 or thereabout stops to be made, photo opportunities or cafe’s to be experienced and simply wondering about life out here when you venture off the beaten track. Taking route 25 through the heart of where serious battles were fought all the way to Karlobag at the coast and across the amazingly beautiful mountain passes to get there proved an excellent choice providing us with a stunningly scenic drive, feeling like an extended Chapman’s Peak, for the entire day. Our end destination was Split.

 

‘Split is nie vandag se kind nie!’               (Split is no youngster)

 

Split is an ancient city with some sources taking economic activity as far back as 2,400 years ago. It was Greek and Roman in its day, but today Split is a proud Croatian city providing a tourist destination ‘par excellance’ including access to many stunning Adriatic islands, perfect for a day tour in the sun and on the salty sea surface. That’s what we did. Chartered a skipper and ski-boat and we explored the fascinating Adriatic Sea, its islands of Hvar and Vis with a first stop in Komiža. We would occasionally dive into the crystal clear blue waters to cool off and then head further exploring. There is never enough time, but we did have time to visit one of my personal highlights, the ex Yugoslavian shelter for boats and submarines on the island Vis, just off the town of Rogačić. This is a 75m deep shelter carved into the shore and which forms part of an entire network of tunnels and underground shelters which the Yugoslavian army occupied for decades.

Further around Vis is the little island Ravnik and the Green Cave, where we ventured in with the boat, had the opportunity to snorkel and enjoy the beautiful images of the sun piercing through a hole in the roof to provide stunning scenes in the crystal clear water inside the cave. I know my home country is ‘the most beautiful country in the world’, but once you’ve broadened your horizons you realise how often beauty is in the eye of the beer holder!

 

Our charter captain for the day, Alex, was a wealth of information and a delight to chat with. While relaxing for lunch at Restaurant Zori, Palmizane, I was able to get him talking about the history, the war and the modern day Croatia. The irony of the situation stays with me. We were having the time of our lives, thinking about Croatia as the best thing since sliced bread and making plans to come live here, while he was only interested to move away, where he can find a ‘proper’ job and be away from the ugliness of what the war reminded him of. He went on about the day the war ended, the evacuating senior officer giving orders to bomb Split, even though his family were still living in Split and how, though he saw the beauty and exciting future of a modern day Croatia, he preferred to move on.

 

The more I learn about Europe, the less I understand war.

 

North of Split is the bay area with is seven Kaštels making up the seven towns, before you reach the walled little gem of a town, Trogir, with its ancient architecture, zillions of photos to be taken, cafè’s to be tried and corners where you can duck behind to just restore your jaw into place after hanging open at the sights. Wealthy families built these seven Kastels in the 1500s mostly as summer residences but also as fortification against the attacking Turks who would come from the sea. Those young Turks certainly were a menace!

10.Kastel
Kastel Gomolica

 

Stumbling onto a gem

 

Starting the long journey back, my daughter took initiative and secured our last stop. We were now taking the highway and not the small roads as we had many kilometres to kill, but it was still a scenic route through the central mountainous terrain, which is Croatia.

 

Ševlje, is a small little rural village in Slovenia, but it’s ideally situated for what we needed. We needed scenery, little mountain roads, a day trip opportunity and a warm shower. Then we would be happy. The fact that we got all of this, plus a delicious home cooked Fettuccini Alfredo courtesy of Linda and Pieter, some good conversation and a sip of wine to discuss the day’s events over, was pure bonus.

 

As is my nature, I selected the smallest little roads to get to Bohinjsko Jezero, or Lake Bohinj. It’s the slightly less famous lake in the Slovenian Alps with that clear Alpine mountain water as forefront and the snow peaked (its August yes) in the background. Old architecture of bridges, churches and more provide amply photographic opportunities, while there’s always sufficient coffee and ice-cream available in Europe. Lake Bled is the more famous one of the two lakes, and has the world famous Cerkev Marijinega Vnebovzetja (maybe slightly more pronounceable Pilgrimage Church of the Assumption of Maria) on the Island of Bled in the middle of the lake. After some canoeing on the lake and criss-crossing through and over the mountains to photograph the lonely Church of St Primoz with its majestic outlook over the world, we knew its time to move on.

A fantastic three week road-trip from Cologne, through the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia and Austria had to end with quick stopover in Munich, just to show off the Marienplatz to Pa Cas and Ouma Koekoe before embracing the autobahn all the way back.

 

It was a magical three weeks, 4,131km and uncountable photos, laughter, wow-moments, lessons from history, hope for the future and just pure wonderful nature experiences making me realise once more, ‘what a wonderful world’ we have.

Croatia
Our Croatian route

Behind the Iron Curtain (in 2015)

Please click the photos to enlarge and please have a look at the video clip at the end

I do know its been nearly 26 years since this ugly curtain was drawn, but still there is some odd nostalgia to venture behind it, observe the interesting languages, food and diversity, discover the great cities and cringe at the stomach-turning history. Once you’ve seen Auschwitz, realized the terror of the communist cold war on the East European people, the modern day slavery inflicted on nations such as Hungary and slept in the Plitvicka (there should be a upside down caret on that ‘c’ but I have no idea how to type that!) where as recently as 20 years ago the Serbs and Croats were still fighting a fierce civil war, you realize that the human race is evil, really evil. Chris de Burhg says it: ‘I fail to see the wisdom of a war’.

I decided to acknowledge and see this history for myself, and Heleen and I planned our trip. Before you stop reading because ‘you’re not in the mood for a somber dark blog post’, let me entice you with the confirmation that what we have seen and how these former grey dark places have lifted themselves and created wonderful new destinations with breath-taking tourist destinations is the real wow of what we’ve discovered. I believe everyone should visit Eastern Europe.

Prague
Prague

Prague is a majestic old grand city and is often called the Paris of the east. Indeed it is a beautiful city, with a buzz of activity, street music, restored vintage cars as sight seeing opportunities and the exceptional architecture to challenge millions of camera lenses, mobile phones and even tablets; the most awful of tourist camera equipment available! We took a city tour in a 1929 Praga 10 seater car that proved to be an excellent choice. Feeling like the queen (and having to concentrate not to lift the hand in her familiar wave to the crowds) we were entertained through the streets of Prague including the old town, the bridges and the castle hill. We hooked up with friends from South Africa who nowadays stay in Prague and imagined ourselves rubbing shoulders for breakfast with the likes of Albert Einstein and Franz Kafka in the famous restaurant Louvre where both these gentlemen used to ‘hang out’.

The Prague bridge and castle
The Prague bridge and castle

But Prague was still very west and I urged to go deeper and, with a lunch stop over in beautiful Kutna Hora and a fabulous one-night stopover in the rural Czech town Házovice we headed to Krakow, Poland.

On our way, though, was Auschwitz.

This is the most horrific place I have ever seen. I cannot even try to write something about it. What strikes me about this history, and then the more recent war areas we’ve traveled through, is that it’s not ancient. It’s not Vlad the Impaler in the dark ages, or Atilla the Hun. It’s in our day and age. Some of the people involved and responsible for inconceivable atrocities are still living amongst us. In Auschwitz itself, the number varies on how many people were actually murdered there. Polish governments itself reduced their official number down from the originally broadcasted 4m to what seems to be the official number now of around 1.1 million. It’s much less, but by no means any less atrocious. Think about the numbers: 1.1 million people in 5 years. That’s 220,000 people per year being murdered or even more exasperating 603 innocent people per day. These were not soldiers shooting back, these were merely people different from the oppressing Nazi’s! It is incomprehensible! Nonetheless, in my view, and despite its horror, Auschwitz should be visited for the sake of improving the future.

Auschwitz
Auschwitz

Auschwitz
Auschwitz

Auschwitz
Auschwitz

Krakow is one funky, beautiful and definitely worthwhile city to visit. During the rule of King Krakus, very much as in the times of Lord Farquart (remember him?) I presume, the farmers in the vicinity of Wawel Hill got so fed-up with the weekly sacrifice of a cow to the local dragon that they ‘poisoned’ him by feeding him a cow skin filled with smoldering sulfur! With the dragon’s rule up in flames, Krakus built his castle in Wawel Hill and voila, Krakow was founded. Or at least, that’s according to some legends.

As with most of Europe, history is filled with violence, war en terror. Krakow is no exception. Krakow as city was spared during WW2, mostly because it served as a major Nazi base and formed the capital of this region. Soon after they, the Nazis decided that they will rid Krakow of all Jews and decided they were not willing to live near the Jews. Initially many Jews were deported, but then the Krakow Ghetto was established. Walled in as part of the city, this was where all Jews had to live in horrendous conditions. To visit the Jewish Ghetto Square and reflect on what happened was a truly thought provoking experience. I think I am loosing all respect in the human race. On the square is a memorial consisting of monumental chairs to signify the habit of the Nazis to enter Jewish apartments and throwing all the furniture out of the window. I immediately remembered why I couldn’t finish watching the film, The Pianist. I simply stopped watching the film when a crippled man in a wheel chair was unceremoniously thrown from the building! But there are always heroes as well, and part of our battery driven 8-seater golf cart tour was a quick visit to the factory of Oscar Schindler.

However, strolling the streets of the magnificent Kazimierz or Jewish Quarters, as well as the Old Town and its magnificent Rynek Glówny, Europe’s largest medieval square (which was grotesquely named Adolf Hitler Platz during the War) gave me new hope. Despite the past and the deliberate destruction of culture and beliefs by a psychotic group, the evidence is there that the people of Krakow have built a funky, modern and stylish city with medieval architecture well intact but complimented with modern cafés, bars and restaurants. It is a pleasure to wander through this fascinating city. A visit to Krakow should be on everyone’s bucket list.

Banskà Stiavnica
Banskà Stiavnica

En route to Budapest and further south, we ventured off the beaten track through the incredibly scenic Štiavnica Mountains and explored the World heritage town Banská Štiavnica in the middle of an ancient caldera (collapsed volcano). I was here much more for the political fascinating (though sometimes truly mind blowing) history, architecture and ‘feel’ than for archeology though. And that ‘feel’ we fortunately did get. In Banská we had the privilege to see the real ‘old world charm’ of the East Block. I am struggling to accurately put in words what I mean when referring to this as charm though, as I have no doubt whatsoever that living under the communist regimes up to the end 80’s was no pleasure. Life was hard, mundane and without any luxury while architecture was unimaginative, square, grey and cold. But for me, now that life has changed for the locals, to wander through towns and apartment blocks in this town I could feel that ghastly reminisce of how isolated and living with eye-patches people were forced to live. Even in 2015 we were stared at strolling down the streets. I could see the curiosity in the eyes of an old man, wearing a vest as shirt, when we passed him, cheerfully and excited chatting in Afrikaans. I wondered if he has ever heard of a country called South Africa. But I more wandered what this man has seen in his approximate 80 years.

Adding to the sheer enjoyment was the limited English and even German understanding in restaurants and shops. Struggling to communicate in an odd manner adds to the enjoyment of travel, as it enhances that feeling of exploring, discovering and achieving, which are the essentials of great traveling.

Budapest, the Széchenyi Chain Bridge
Budapest, the Széchenyi Chain Bridge

There have been many conflicts in Budapest, which as a single city is actually quite new. Originally founded by Celts before the Romans ruled Budapest it is a city with a long and intriguing history. Its name stems from the two Bulgarian fortresses Buda and Pest situated on each side of the Danube River and which only merged as recent as 1870 into one city.

My first visit to Budapest was in January 1994, just five years after the Iron Curtain was lifted. I remember so well how fascinated I was with this absolutely stunning city with its distinctive ‘behind the curtain’ feel to it. I remember Katie Surek (our land lady at that time) complimenting us on our nice clothes (jeans, sweaters and sneakers) and charging us just 8 US dollars per night for accommodation. I remember exactly that feeling of being the only foreigner in the city, everybody staring at us while having magnificent coffee and cake in the classy Gerbeaud Coffee House on Vörösmarty Ter, or strolling the Vaci Utca, Andràssy Utca and the Hösòk Ter (Heroes Square). Said Katie, ‘people came with buses to the city to window-shop when the first Nike store opened in Vaci Utca. The West has arrived and Hungarians could express their individuality by being one self, by working for yourself and achieving for yourself!’

In the harsh winter of 1944 despite the fact he did not have a Jewish name and had married into a catholic family Miklós was rounded up along with others from the ghetto by the ruling Arrow Cross Party for Jewish activities. Like many before him and many more after him he was forced to strip naked on the banks of the Danube and face the river; a firing squad then shot the prisoners at close range in the back so that they fell into the river to be washed away. This was a common practice that occurred during 1944-1945. Sculptors Gyula Pauer and Can Togay have created a moving memorial to these Holocaust atrocities that sits in front of the magnificent Parliament building on the edge of the river. What visitors will see are 60 pairs of rusted period shoes cast out of iron. Different sizes and styles reflect how nobody was spared from the brutality of the Arrow Cross militia (the shoes depict children, women, businessmen, sportsmen etc.).
In the harsh winter of 1944 despite the fact he did not have a Jewish name and had married into a catholic family Miklós was rounded up along with others from the ghetto by the ruling Arrow Cross Party for Jewish activities. Like many before him and many more after him he was forced to strip naked on the banks of the Danube and face the river; a firing squad then shot the prisoners at close range in the back so that they fell into the river to be washed away. This was a common practice that occurred during 1944-1945.
Sculptors Gyula Pauer and Can Togay have created a moving memorial to these Holocaust atrocities that sits in front of the magnificent Parliament building on the edge of the river. What visitors will see are 60 pairs of rusted period shoes cast out of iron. Different sizes and styles reflect how nobody was spared from the brutality of the Arrow Cross militia (the shoes depict children, women, businessmen, sportsmen etc.).

Now, 21 years later, the spectacular city is proof that these capitalistic, ideals and motivation paid off handsomely. Budapest has become a trendy vibrating place with cafes, bars and restaurants galore, while still maintaining that old character and heritage. Budapest now seem to be a happy place as opposed to those dark, dark years of communist rule and modern day ‘slavery’.

The Budapest bridge and castle at night
The Budapest bridge and castle at night

At 60 Andrassy Utca is the Terror Museum, which was unfortunately closed on the Monday I was there. They do however have an excellent display outside saying just enough to make sure I will go back and visit the museum on an open day. One such is the story of one Andràs Toma, the Hungarian soldier who was captured and put in a labour camp in 1944 by the Russian Red Army. Toma was captured on January 11, near Auschwitz and was taken to Boksitogorsk, or as the Russians call it Бокситогорск near St. Petersburgh. Toma picked up some illness and was transferred to another camp, Bistrjag (pronounced Bistrjag), some 1,000km further east and in 1947 transferred to a psychiatric hospital in Kotelnisch. Psychiatric patients were not labour camp prisoners and therefore András’ records were deleted. He was declared dead in 1954 and thus was ‘lost’. A linguist recognized his accent as being Hungarian and not Russian and his case was followed up. He was brought back to Hungary in 2000 after spending 54 years in a Russian Psychiatric hospital and with DNA tests he was reunited with his family. Since his military service was continuous, the Hungarian government paid him out all his back pay. Andràs Toma (who became Tamas) was probably the last WW2 POW to be returned home. Life’s a journey, they say.

The Terror Museum in Budapest
The Terror Museum in Budapest

Photos of victims who never returned
Photos of victims who never returned

If WW2 and Cold War is regarded as old school, our next destination entered areas of extreme scenic beauty and much more recent violent conflict. We headed to Croatia, which will be the topic of my next Blog post. For now I’ll leave

‘My house in Budapest

My hidden treasure chest,

Golden grand piano

My beautiful Castillo’

For mountain lakes, Dalmation beaches, islands, boat cruises and gripping historic learning.

A day at the museum

Ja well, to say the truth, two days at a couple of museums, but wow, what interesting stories, photos and places! Some of them seriously scary and entirely screwed up though!

 Berlyn1

Berlin’s history is not for the faint hearted. But nowadays, it is truly a magnificent city and I love going to Berlin. As a matter of fact, it must be my favourite city in all of Germany because of its vibrant new world feeling combined with that old world cold war inquisitiveness. And when you think further back, it obviously has a sickening place in history too, but to be able to wonder the exact same streets now and shake your head in misbelief on what has happened here in the recent past is simply a marvelous traveling experience.

Modern day Berlin is a vibrant beautiful city, working hard to forget its past
Modern day Berlin is a vibrant beautiful city, working hard to forget its past

 And furthermore, I love to visit sites that featured in movies. When Jason Bourne ‘kidnapped’ Nicky on Alexanderplatz in The Bourne Supremacy, I new exactly where that was and how those trams operated. Thus, I decided to start my two-day museum visit in Berlin with coffee and croissant in Coffee Fellows on Alexanderplatz.Berlyn2

I need to qualify before saying anything further that I am no political analyst, I am no historian, I am no fundi on war nor spying, and I am not a psychologist. I will simply blog my experience and sentiment. I am, however so curiously intrigued by the German history and why certain things happened the way they did. Thus, even though I have visited the DDR museum previously and I decided that I don’t have to go there again, I simply strolled there on auto pilot and found myself wandering through this fascinating museum once more contemplating the irony why the socialist state called themselves the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (or German Democratic Republic – GDR). Can it be that these guys actually had a very deep deep hidden sick sense of humour? They were so democratic (and honest) that Walter Ulbricht (the Chairman of the GDR Council of the State) on June 15, 1961 answered a journalist who asked if they were planning to ‘erect a state border’ at Brandenburg Gate with a ‘Nobody intends to put up a wall’.

The Berlin Wall divided the city for 28 years
The Berlin Wall divided the city for 28 years

On the peaceful Sunday morning of August 13, 1961 the barbed wire were strung and the East Germans were erecting barriers. Walter Ulbricht signed the approval on August 12, 1961. That was the wiring that ended up in a full border around West Berlin consisting of a wall on its eastern border and fences along the northern, western and southern borders. In total, by 1989, this western island city was fenced in by:

  • 106 kilometers of concrete plates
  • 5 kilometers of metal fence
  • 105 kilometers of anti-vehicle ditches
  • 127 kilometers of sensor fence
  • 124 kilometers of patrol paths
  • 302 watch towers
  • 20 bunkers and
  • 259 dog runs

The main reason was the many GDR citizens who exercised their democratic right to relocate to the west (in 1960 about 360,000) reaching a climax in 1961 of 19,100 in June, 30,400 in July and 47,400 in the first half of August. Exercising one’s democratic rights under the German Democratic Republic’s autocratic powers was just to freethinking for their liking and image!

GDR philosophy
GDR philosophy

So, while the DDR museum enlightens one regarding life in East Germany for the period between WW2 and the fall of the Wall on 9 November 1989, the Deutsches Historisches Museum on the other side of the Berliner Dom tells the entire German history of the past 1500 years. Here you can follow history’s path through the political changes, the church reformation in the 1500’s, the language development and that interesting phenomenon and the pursuance thereof called ‘hegemony’.

HegemonyThis ‘big word’ features in the history of Germany, and Europe many times and coming from South Africa, I just shook my head in disbelief while wandering through the timelines and the resultant conflicts and shear scale of some of these conflicts. The first genocide mentioned in the Deutsches Historisches Museum is actually very close to home where it is mentioned that between 1904 and 1907 under the ‘Deutsch Südwest Afrika’ colonial regime (present day Namibia) eighty percent of the Herero population and 50 percent of the Nama population were killed in a brutal and deliberate scorched earth campaign. The drive was under the German General Lothar von Trotha and its estimated that between 24,000 and 100,000 Hereo and 10,000 Nama were massacred. According to Wikipedia, a copy of Trotha’s extermination order can be seen in the Botswana National Archives where it states ‘every Hereo, with or without a gun, with or without cattle, will be shot. I will no longer accept women or children, I will drive them back to their people (to die in the desert) or let them be shot at’. These mass killings were named as the first example of a 20th century genocide.

What is wrong with the human race?

Checkpoint Charlie nowadays is simply a tourist attraction with fake soldiers spoiling the photographic opportunities
Checkpoint Charlie nowadays is simply a tourist attraction with fake soldiers spoiling the photographic opportunities

This is the third time I visited Berlin, and although Checkpoint Charlie is nowadays just a tourist photograph spot, with the most irritating wannabe dressed-up soldiers occupying the best photo spot and demanding money even to evacuate the spot so that you can take a photo sans them, I cannot not go there, have a coffee near the spot and sit and wonder. Café Adler is no more, unfortunately and has become part of a Berlin Café chain, but I did have the privilege to drink a coffee there in 2007 when I visited Berlin for the first time. I did find this excellent post regarding Café Adler though, and exactly as Francine Mathews so eloquently puts it, this is the reason I too keep returning to Checkpoint Charlie. Read it at http://www.francinemathews.com/cutout-spies.php

A stretch of the wall in Niederkirchanstraße
A stretch of the wall in Niederkirchanstraße

Berlyn5

Sort of just around the corner in Niederkirchenerstraße is a preserved part of The Wall, with nowadays a brilliant museum consisting mainly of photographs of the Nazi party’s rise and atrocities during the war itself. I don’t think one can visit Berlin without putting a silent morbid hour or two asides to stroll through the Topograhie des Terrors.

The famous Berlin Ampelmann
The famous Berlin Ampelmann

My personal highlight, though was my visit to the Stasi Museum just off the U-Bahn Magdalenenstraße. This is the actual office and headquarters of the Ministry of Sate Security until the fall of the wall. This is the offices, boardroom and even bedroom where Erich Mielke ruled this State Department with his iron fist from 1957 to 1989.Erich Mielke This was the spy headquarters where the East Germans conducted their propaganda, where they architected their subduing techniques and where the entire system of collaboration and civilian neighbour spying on civilian neighbour was run from.

Fascinating Stasi museum
Fascinating Stasi museum

Although the German history is scattered with atrocities of the grandest scale and incidents that truly make the stomach turn, there still is a weird and unexplainable nostalgia about the period of the cold war. In the seventies I was a child but remember the fascination I had when I heard the news mentioning the ‘lugbrug’ (air-bridge) of the western world servicing West Berlin or when my Dad told me about the spy novels he read where many scenes took place in Café Adler and those dark grey movie scenes portraying those days.

I love going to Berlin, I need more time.

East Side Gallery
East Side Gallery