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
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!
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 can 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.
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
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.
Can you imagine having been intimidated, interrogated and abused in the ‘old days’ of madness, and then many years later, after walls came tumbling down, you bump into your bully in a grocery store?
That’s the story our hotelier in the amazing city Schwerin shared with us at breakfast. His wife was clearly still shaken up by this experience, but that is so much reality in many parts of Germany, or the larger previously communist Eastern Europe.
Heleen and I decided to explore the far northeast of Germany for a week and to see what surprise destinations, in both sights and history we could find. And oh boy, did I enjoy it.
Schwerin is the capital city of German state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and is particularly known for its breath-taking palace. The palace is currently the office of the state government and is situated on the lake island just out of town. It was February and as can be imagined, the weather was not ‘African friendly’ weather, but we were brave, tightened the scarves and strolled the beautiful island, amazed at the majestic palace before we sniffed out a delicious traditional German potato-, leek- and ‘wurst’ soup with bread and a glass of nearly acceptable quality wine in the well preserved ‘altstadt’.
I attempt to also appreciate the extremely interesting other historic periods strolling the town and sights, but the Stasi- and the cold war period is constantly in my head. So much more after having a very absorbing conversation with our hotelier and being informed that the big empty building 200m from the hotel is actually the old Stasi Head Office, where his wife had her nightmare experience many years before. It was actually right there on our doorstep and one of many places where so many serious atrocities happened resulting in numerous innocent people’s life so dramatically influenced by the communist and socialist bully methods. This incident, of the hotelier wife and her face-to-face years later with her interrogator immediately reminded me of Anna Fulder’s book, Stasiland, and that particular comment Miriam made to Anna when she said, ‘And I think about those Stasi men. They would never in their lives have imagined that they would seize to exist and that their offices would become a museum. A museum!’ She then further says ‘I like to drive up to the Runde Ecke and park right outside. I just sit there in the car and I feel …. triumph! Miriam makes a gesture which starts as a wave, and becomes a guillotine. ‘You lot are gone’.
And that’s the lesson. Nothing lasts. Not Eric Mielke and his Stasi nor the Gadaffi’s, Sadam Hussains, or Robert/Grace Mugabes and their cronies.
I like driving around in these remoter parts of the over developed Germany. Here you still get a feeling that its slightly remote and rural – definitely not Karoo remote – but at least slightly less built up than Northrhein Westfalen, where we live. Once you’ve succeeded in shifting the Stasi history out of your head for a while, you realise how scenically beautiful this part of Germany is. Schwerin sits next to a beautiful lake, the Schwerin See, (yes, the Europeans call a lake a sea and the sea a ‘meer’, but then again, Obelix did repeatedly state that they are slightly crazy!). This northern coast provides some extra scenic splendour including the white cliffs at Putgarten on the island Rügen. It’s a worthwhile destination to go hiking, even in bad weather. Bad weather here has the knack to shut you off from the rest of the world. Its just you, the grey of the air and sea and the beautiful green of the coast, with a bleak hint of the whitish cliffs in the distance. And just before you freeze, you end your hike back in town in a small pub-like restaurant with thick vegetable soup and fresh bread. Winter here is grey, but it’s a grey that has its own peculiar excellence.
Further east and on the border with Poland is the holiday town, Heringsdorf, on the Usedom Island. The area is known as Kaiserbad, as it was the favourite spa destination of the German Emperors in days gone by due its its clean beaches and the long sandy stretch. It actually is the longest sand beach in Europe, being 40km in total distance. Heringsorf was our base for a few days from where we visited the astonishing Świnoujście (Swinemünde) which has a harbour in the river mouth of the Swine river. This was a major German naval base during WW2 as well as the Cold War period. On the beaches of Heringsdorf the military lookout towers are still plentiful. The irony about these is that they were mostly used, similar to the Berlin Wall, to keep the ‘free’ people of the German ‘Democratic’ Republic from defecting, and not so much as defending against external threats entering!
Some 40km to the west of Heringsdorf we strolled in fascination through the museum in Peenemünde. Here an Army Research Centre was founded in 1937. Many serious weapons, including guided missile and rocket weapons were tested and designed here using the nearby concentration camp inmates as forced labour – forced to build weapons they knew would destroy their homeland and massacre their own people. During the Cold War Soviet days it was rumoured that the Soviets revived Peenemünde for their space program.
Heading back home to Bad Honnef, I decided to drive via the historic towns of (Lutherstad) Wittenberg and Erfurt to spend a few hours in the footsteps of Martin Luther, the father of the German Protestant movement. It is 500 years ago (October) since he nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg and certainly was a door I needed to see. The Luther church was inspiring to see, but as a town the old part of Erfurt was something extraordinary. It was here, in Erfurt where Martin Luther was ordained in the Cathedral of St Mary, which dates back to the 8th century and where he also delivered many of his sermons. Still intact in Erfurt is the Krämerbrucke (or merchant bridge) and its medieval houses spanning the Gera River. The original bridge was an important part of the trade and pilgrims routes connecting Rome with the Baltic Sea. It was originally a wooden bridge but was destroyed many times by fire. The current stone bridge, which is lined on both sides with half-timbered houses, was completed in 1472.
En route back home to ‘West Germany’, we stopped a last stop to sort of exit ‘Eastern Germany’ officially at a fantastically interesting museum called Point Alpha. Its one of many ‘Grenz’ museums where the ‘iron curtain’ became real. Point Alpha specifically was the border between the towns Rasdorf in the west and Geisa in the east. It has an excellent museum depicting the inner German border as well as some well-preserved samples of various stages of the original border.
After a thoroughly enjoyable week back in history and into a cold grey era, I must admit that there was a feeling of relief that we were heading west, and that it was into an era well beyond 9 November 1989, the day when such important walls came tumbling down. Walls aren’t the answer.
‘On day four, it was time to move on. Francois and Talitha said their goodbyes and headed back to Wildernis, while we headed north-west, towards Mata Mata and its border post. We still had 10 days ahead to explore the vast distances and rugged beauty of the Namib and Etosha. Distance for today was 774km of dirt road; pure ‘lekkerte!’’
Mata Mata is one of the three conventional camps in the Kgalagadi and lies on the eastern border of Namibia with the convenience of a border post. One can enter and exit Namibia at this post if you stay in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park for two nights, preventing the park becoming a transit route, which is obviously a good rule. Namibia has vast distances and travellers more often than not underestimate the travel distances and times. I too made that mistake. Not so much in my planning, but more so in my execution. Enjoying the goodbyes with Francois and Talitha, the showers in Twee Rivieren and the game drive from Twee Rivieren to Mata Mata too much, meant that we exited South Africa about three hours later than initially planned. We still had 570km to cover from Mata Mata to Sesriem, and it was already after lunchtime. Of the 570km 90% was dirt roads, which translates to at least 8 hours of driving. Its normally not a problem, but this being wild country with plenty of wild animals, its not wise to travel after sunset. That clichéd quote ‘its better to travel hopeful than to arrive’ really rang true that evening, with frequent encounters with oryx, zebra, kudu and other large animals roaming the roads in the dark. Fortunately, we travelled well and arrived safely at Sossus Oasis Camp Site, Sesriem.
Namibia must be one of the best-kept secrets and I actually don’t want to promote it too much through my blog, as I’m afraid of more people traveling there and spoiling it for us selfish ones. It is pristine, wild, mostly dry, tranquil but rough and expansive. And why I have a very selfish stance on trying my little best to keep it that way is because people spoil things. Sitting and enjoying our campfire late afternoon the next day, sipping a Pinotage from Tulbach and not speaking much, the serenity was abruptly ended by an Englishman and a German entering a particularly abusive shout-fest over their camping spot and access to the electricity. Right there and then, Europe spoiled a perfect African setting for the better part of an hour. But the rough beauty of the place convinced me to ignore them and enjoy the splendour of God’s creation.
Though Lufthansa may be at risk, due to their lack of customer service (see my previous post Flight LH572 July 22, 2016 : An ugly story), we eventually did arrive in South Africa, and we did enjoy all the promised ‘braais’, ‘kuiers’ and catch-up with all and sundry; exactly the things Expats do when returning home for a visit. It was fortunately not ‘allesverloren’!
A truly special place is the Kgalagadi. Its one of those places which I truly wish I could show off to everybody I meet in Europe. It’s a pristine wilderness in the dry western parts of South Africa and Botswana as God intended and where wild beasts roam freely. The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is one of the most pristine conservation areas on earth, and that was the first destination of our two week Kgalagadi and Namibian safari.
Special places require special equipment. Though the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park has normal dirt roads and its theoretically accessible with a sedan, its not advisable. Even when the roads are well maintained, you are still confronted with high sand walls next to most of the roads, which means while we are scanning the wide plains for Oryx, Springbuck, Lions et al from the raised elevation of the Land Rover, the sedan driver scans a meter high sand wall for ants, grouse and desert rats! To fully enjoy the Kgalagadi, one needs to have a bakkie, kombi or similar high, big tyres vehicle.
When I blog on my travel, I prefer to focus on the good stuff, because travel writing is a good thing, it’s a learning experience and its about sharing motivation with others to pack their bags and find new places, meet new people, eat new food and create new stories. My Blog post number 39 however, is a sour, ugly one. I met people I would rather not. I don’t like it, and I am hesitant to post it. It’s a story of travel going wrong, which does happen, and giving me an eye-opener on how ugly and incompetent problem-solving by a world-renowned corporation can be.
I’m sitting in the Vienna airport with a cold beer waiting for my connecting flight to Doha after what was probably my worst ever weekend of traveling in my life and I’m struggling how to approach this blogging task. In my head I hear the good lesson I learnt from Dr. Humphrey Mathe over and over again. ‘When you have a difficult assignment to write about’, he taught me, ‘write it after time has passed, then let it sit for a few hours, then read it twice, and then re-write it so that you don’t include too much emotion’. Its wise words, and I’ll try, but its also an incident I would like to report on exactly how I experienced it. (this previous paragraph I wrote in July 2016, while still in the emotion of the incident. I let it simmer until today, but it still bugs me).
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 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’.
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.
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.
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.
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!’
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’.
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.
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.