Saturday, July 28, 2007


Despite trying my hardest to the contrary I must admit that I have become something of which I am not particularly proud: a travel snob. As opposed to your common or garden snob, who looks down his or her nose at people with limited means, the travel snob is an anti-snob who disdains those with too much. Actually no, that's a bit too simplistic. It would be truer to say that they scorn those who are too lazy to make the effort to discover the places they visit, to learn or adapt to their culture, mores and history and generally remain detached from their surroundings by staying in four star hotels, taking tours in air-conditioned coaches that deposit them at various attractions and whisk them back to their resorts when they're finished. They only respect people who are willing to get down and dirty and discover things for themselves. Some extreme travel snobs take it a step further and turn their noses up at anyone who visits popular on-the-beaten-track sights/countries and doesn't sleep in cockroach infested dumps. If you haven't lived with the remote tribes of Burkina Faso or trekked the peaks of Kyrgystan you just don't cut the mustard with them.

Luckily I haven't become quite like that (yet), and realise that most people can't afford to leave their home commitments for long stretches of time, and can only take one or two two-week holidays a year. That's perfectly understandable and reasonable, but doesn't necessarily preclude an attempt at understanding the places one visits. The one thing I do get particularly angry about though is people who visit national parks and areas of natural beauty and then just horse around, throw litter and make enough noise to scare all the wildlife in a 50 mile radius, completely oblivious to the damage they cause. But when visiting someplace I am determined to get the most out of it and so idly dawdling in front of shop windows and taking a couple of hours to get ready in the morning are certain ways to make me tetchy. I'm certainly not the best person to travel with because after such a long time on my own and doing as I please I've become a bit peculiar - I'm not very accommodating and am unwilling to compromise with people over how things should be done. Hopefully I'll be able to reintegrate with polite society upon my return home. Travelling has, in certain respects become a job for me (though one I love doing), and I've become determined to do it properly - getting rid of extraneous luxuries, such as sleeping in a bed and having a shower every day, or eating well (in Europe my diet on the road revolves around bread, either with cheap chocolate spread or cheap pate and tomatoes), to concentrate on the essentials of walking the streets and back alleys of towns, visiting museums, trying to talk to the locals and generally trying to soak up as much info and as many sights and sounds and tastes as possible.

Sunday, July 22, 2007


Over the past week various family members, more or less distantly related (family is a big deal in Persian culture and so I was even hanging out with my cousin's wife's sister), were converging on our place either in family groups or individually from all over the world: Iran, USA, Mexico, Canada and Germany. Some people hadn't seen each other in over 25 years (and others never at all). Welcome to the Iranian diaspora (due almost exclusively to the '79 revolution, there are some 10 million Iranians living abroad). Getting together wasn't particularly easy as obtaining visas to European countries for Iranian citizens is rather tricky and is entirely at the whim of consular staff (I know I've complained in the past about visas, but I have it very easy with my British passport compared to many people). However, despite such large separation, both over time and distance, there was no feeling of awkwardness between us and in no time there was plenty of good-natured laughing, banter and reminiscing about the past. I'm pretty impressed by the lack of animosity or arguments in such a big family, though possibly it has something to do with the fact that we see each other so little and for such a short time that there's no opportunity for disputes to develop. Whatever the case there was plenty of hugging, dancing, eating and singing (not by me, thank god!). My job was to show people around Prague and point out the various sights and I think that if I don't manage to find a job back in Britain at least I can come back and be a tour guide here.

For the big night of celebrations we went to rather chic local golf club-cum-restaurant (a sign of the increasing affluence of the country as some 5 years ago I don't think any such place existed) and took it over for the evening. What I found particularly amusing was that, this being the Czech Republic, a lot of the menu was made up of pork and beer and the family is (supposedly) Muslim! The evening climaxed with strange Middle Eastern music and arms-in-the-air dancing that had the waitresses scratching their heads. And then the next morning, everyone slightly worse for wear and some nursing hangovers, people started trickling off to the airport to fly back home with promises to try and see more of each other, something I hope will happen because family, when it works, is a truly fantastic thing because they are people you can fall back on and trust no matter what and without question.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Rediscovering Prague

So I've finally made it to Prague where I have hung up my backpack for a couple of weeks and take advantage of the free food and ablution facilities - it feels great to be able to have more than one shower a week, although I still can't bring myself to be decadent enough to have one every day. I know Prague pretty well because since the age of four I've visited the place at least once a year either to visit my grandmother or my father who, now that he's retired, has now permanently moved back to our house in his hometown just on the outskirts of the city. So, despite Prague being such a romantic and beautiful city it had long ago lost its charm for and become a city like many others. And, like most inhabitants of Prague, in Summer I would avoid the historical, touristic centre like the plague, unwilling to have to push my way through hordes of tourists and pay through the nose for overpriced beer. Now, however, I am having to dive back in and play the tour guide as my far-flung family is converging here to celebrate my uncle's 50th wedding anniversary next week. It hasn't been anything like a chore though, partly because it has been a long time since I was last here and so I'm enjoying rediscovering the wee nooks and crannies in the old town, but also because I am now better able to put what I see in context (historically, artistically, etc.) and so can appreciate it more and truly treasure the amazing city. And because this has also been the longest that I have been away from Prague the small, almost indiscernible, daily changes have piled up and upon arriving along the motorway driving past the suburbs I was immediately struck by the flashy new office buildings and the huge amount of construction work, especially of infrastructure, going on. Things are certainly changing in Prague despite the constancy of Charles' bridge and the imposing silhouette of the castle lording over the city from the far bank of the Vltava. Part of me is somewhat sad though, wanting to halt the economic progress, remembering with fondness the years just before and after the fall of Communism when it seemed to my young eyes that the city belonged to us alone and ice-creams cost a pittance (I wasn't old enough to have focused my taste buds on the finer rewards of the local beer). Now there are more tourists than locals in the centre and Prague is no longer an exotic destination, instead it has become the stag party capital of Europe. Even our little town hasn't been able to escape the tsunami of change. Apartment blocks are springing up in this mostly rural location and people don't seem to know each other as much - it used to be that you would always bump into someone you knew on the train to and from Prague but now not a single face is familiar. Luckily I still have a few friends here and there who I will be winkling out during my stay and having a few beers with.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Industry Past And Present

Apart from the slight differences in language there are other disparities between Czech and Slovakia. The former was always more sceptical when it came to questions of faith experiencing the Hussite wars and being the scene of the infamous defenestration of Prague (when some disgruntled Protestant nobles threw a couple of Catholic governors out of the a window in Prague castle) which started the Thirty Years' war. In fact the Czechs are the most irreligious people in Europe with 59% of the population claiming to be atheist or agnostic in the last census. Not so their eastern neighbours where churches are full, queues to confessional are long (so long, in fact, that at one church I saw a sign requesting the faithful to forgo with the usual opening formalities and to quickly recite their sins so that the overworked priest could see to everybody) and many people have discreet pictures of the pope - ex-pope - in their cars. So, whilst on my way to the picturesque medieval town of Levoča, I saw many people walking along the side of the road, either singly or in groups, old and young, some carrying crosses in front of them like standards, all converging on the little town and its church on a hill dedicated to the Virgin. Apparently it's one of the largest pilgrimages in central Europe with hundreds of thousands of people coming from Poland, Hungary, Ukraine and Austria as well as from all corners of Slovakia. Such an event would never occur in Czech where the only site of pilgrimage is the local pub and the only prayer "just one more for the road."

The Czechs were also always more industrially developed and richer than the Slovaks and so following the Velvet Divorce of 1993 when the two countries separated (instigated, incidentally, by Slovak politicians) the Slovak economy fared considerably worse. Lately, however, they have been catching up and over the past two years the Slovak economy has been the fastest growing in Europe. The main motor for this success has been the recent influx of car manufacturers eager to take advantage of the cheap, skilled workforce and close proximity to European markets. Slovakia now produces more cars per capita than any other country in the world.

Just across the border from Slovakia is the once-industrial town of Zlín. Here it wasn't cars that were produced but shoes, and Zlín will forever be intimately linked with the name Baťa. Just over a century ago Tomáš Baťa founded his shoe company. Things started relatively slowly, but after visiting America the Tomáš came back inspired by Henry Ford with new ideas about mass production and factory techniques, and things started moving along faster, getting a boost with WWI when the Austrian army placed a big order and the company never looked back. At its peak, before the outbreak of WWII the Baťa empire was the biggest manufacturer of shoes in the world with factories in four continents with a workforce numbering over 100,000, diversifying into the whole shoe-making process with farms in Argentina (for the leather) and rubber plantations in Brazil amongst others, and at the centre of it all was Zlín. The Tomáš wasn't content just to make money but there was a social vision as well, and with the wealth and power he wielded in Zlín (he became elected major in 1923 and ran the place like his own little fief) he had the wherewithall to see it through. The town became a blank slate for Tomáš's ideas of social harmony and welfare. For his workers he built affordable family houses each with its own little garden, social amenities and clubs, as well as a number of schools colleges for subjects as diverse as filmography, management, architecture and even aviation. Zlín became a planned town, the plan being Baťa's. He brought in architects from all over the world to design the town along the constructivist lines popular at the time and elevated this once-insignificant town into a major industrial centre. And since it all sprang up in such a short period the entire town is like an open-air museum of 20's and 30's architecture, and at dominating it all is the mrakodrap (skyscraper), the building that was once the HQ of Baťa and the tallest building in Czechoslovakia (though that's not saying much as it only has a rather underwhelming 16 floors). Many of Tomáš's ideas and innovations were ahead of his time, especially with regards to worker welfare, though some of them were a little more strange, such as having his office in a special, enlarged elevator so that he could get in touch with the various departments more quickly.

Unfortunately WWII put paid to all those grand plans. First the company (or at least the parts of it that were in occupied territory) were sequestered by the Nazis for their war effort and then immediately afterwards the Communists nationalised it accusing Jan Antonin Baťa (who took over from his brother Tomáš who died in an air crash) of collaborating with the Germans (despite the fact that he managed to save a large number of Jews and ordinary Czechs from prison and concentration camps). Because the company was truly international the Baťa family was able to escape to Canada and regroup the eviscerated firm which exists to this day and is moderately successful around the world. Zlín was not so fortunate, not only did it suffer the ultimate humiliation of having its name changed to Gottwaldov (after the Czech Communist leader), but as the bolshevik ideology was to rest on the laurels of those who had gone before. The factories at Zlín were left to run in the same way and with the same machines as in the pre-war years. Such stagnation didn't matter in the quota-world of the planned economy but as soon as the system collapsed and the market became exposed to competition they just couldn't cope and were shut down within a matter of years.

Nowadays Zlín is going through somewhat of a renaissance (or is at least trying to) with emphasis being put on education, through the extensive university that grew out of Baťa's colleges, and the abandoned factory buildings refurbished, spruced up and converted for different uses. Sadly, as many Czechs lament, this story is not unique and many companies that were once world class in their respective fields have fallen by the wayside or are pale imitations of their former selves: Skoda (cars), Tatra and Liaz (both truck manufacturers), Skoda (heavy industry) and Jawa (motorbikes). But when feeling nostalgic the Czechs soon remind themselves that they still have the best (and cheapest!) beer in the world, and decide to make sure that it's still the case and head off to the local pub.

Friday, July 06, 2007


It's good to be in Slovakia where the veil of incomprehension has finally been lifted and I can communicate with anybody on the street (and sometimes I do just that asking unnecessarily often for directions just because I can). Theoretically Czech and Slovak are two different languages but as far as I'm concerned Slovak is just slightly misspelt Czech and the two are so mutually intelligible that no real effort has to be made when a Czech and a Slovak converse. During Czechoslovak days the daily news on TV and the radio would be alternately broadcast in the two languages. There are, of course, a few differences mainly because of the different histories of the two countries: until the inception of Czechoslovakia in 1918 Slovakia was always a part of the Hungarian empire whereas the Czech lands (Bohemia and Moravia) were always under the influence of the Germanic Holy Roman or Austrian empires. As such one contains more Hungarian, whilst the other more German, loanwords. I, however, like Slovakian which has a more sing-song quality to it than Czech and people often end phrases with a jolly hej?

The main metropolis in the east of the country is Košice, which used to be the second-largest town in Hungary until Hungary was carved up after WWI (any historical museum in Hungary will lament, at least once, that it lost two thirds of its territory at the Treaty of Triannon) and you can still find a fair number of Hungarian Slovaks in this part of the country. Hungary's biggest national hero, Ferenc Rakoczi, was also born and is buried here and his house-museum is a little pilgrimage site for visiting Hungarians as can be attested by the statue of the venerated man which is bedecked in the white, green and red colours of their national flag. For such a historic city the old core is suitably ornate and grand, however the rest of the city is a bolshevik blot on the landscape. The Communists, wanting to industrialise this mostly agrarian region decided to set up a gigantic steel-mill in the town, despite it not being particularly close to any raw materials, or markets for that matter. So the city's population tripled in a very short space of time leading to a labyrinth of boxy, concrete apartment blocks sprouting up around the city. A pity as the centre deserves better, but such were the ineffable ways of Communist planning.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007


Finally the plains of the puszta have given way to some hills in the north of the country. In my week in Hungary so far I have learnt the words jo (good), köszönöm (thank you) and igen (yes). Not very good going by any standards. Though yesterday I learnt another word: bor (wine). Now I'm not much of an alcoholic (and certainly not on this trip as I can't afford it) and even less of an oenologue, but a visit to eastern Hungary wouldn't be complete without taking in the famous Tokaj region which produces some of the best sweet white wines in the world. Arriving in the quaint little town of Tokaj the visitor is bor-ed from all sides as every other building seems to be a wine cellar offering wine tastings for the visiting gourmet. Although its reputation became somewhat overshadowed by French and German wines during the Communist years, in the 17th to 19th centuries Tokaj was the wine for discerning nobles. The Russian tsars kept a permanent garrison in town to ensure the safety of their supplies, and none other than Louis XIV the Sun King, declared the sweet Aszu wine to be "Vinum Regum, Rex Vinorum" (Wine of kings, King of wines), no small accolade giving that he had some pretty decent plonk on his own doorstep. Plus this is the very first place, or so it is claimed, to have a specially protected name/trademark dating all the way back to 1730.

Well, being the dedicated traveller and discoverer of strange, exotic customs I decided to sacrifice myself to the advancement of human knowledge and signed myself up for a tasting (as it were). At a normal such tasting you are presented with a half-dozen different wines and some bland buns and water to cleanse your palate between wines. For the more dedicated there is a small sheet with the various vital statistics of each brew (such as alcohol and sugar content, acidity as well as the price, should you wish to make a purchase afterwards and carry on your tasting in private) and a jar to pour out unwanted wine so that one doesn't become too drunk. "Excuse me?" I asked my hostess. "Some people do several tastings in a day and don't want to get drunk," she explained. "That's OK," I assured her, "I won't be wasting any precious alcohol." (Both of us were probably thinking the same thing: crazy foreigners!) Well, I certainly got pleasantly tipsy and learnt a bit about wine making, though personally I couldn't tell the difference between the wine at 30 euros and the one for only 10. A good thing for me that I'm not a gourmet! I did have fun trying to find the most expensive bottle on sale (ever the child) and unearthed a half litre bottle of Eszencia for over 100 euros, and I was assured that there were better years if I asked around.

Even closer to the Slovak border there are the beginnings of smallish mountains, well, hills really. They're not much to look at but they hide a magical world of caves, packed with stalagmites and tites (remember, mites go up and tites go down) underneath. Some of them even straddle the border and so you can legally cross an international border underground, though you need to book in advance for that so of course that was never going to happen. Instead I just tagged along on an ordinary tour, though it was cool nonetheless with some exquisite rock formations. Very cool, now if only they can teach the guides some English...