Friday, August 31, 2007

Life Of Lux-ury

West of Cologne and the Rhine the countryside begins to undulate more and more eventually forming the Eifel and Ardennes ranges. At this westernmost part of Germany lies the city of Trier which prides itself on being the oldest city in Germany with an impressive pedigree dating back to the Romans when it was one of the capitals during the Tetrarchy (like Sremska Mitrovica in Serbia). It was also during this time that Trier's most famous son, Constantine the Great, was making a name for himself. As the one who moved the Roman empire eastwards to Constantinople, reunified the fractured empire and made Christianity the official religion he certainly achieved a lot and is particularly revered in the eastern church as the founder of the Byzantine empire. Needless to say Trier is proud of its illustrious antique past and makes sure that you don't forget it as you enter through the massive Porta Nigra, walk past the solid cathedral (one of the oldest churches in the world) and try not to notice the three museums each with extensive exhibitions devoted to old Constantine.

Follow the Moselle river another 15km upstream and, although you may not notice it, you cross a border into Luxembourg. This region is at the heart of the EU: it was here that the first treaty on steel production co-operation (so that no country could start an arms race) was drawn up; most people speak at least two or three languages fluently; and hundreds of thousands cross the border every day to work in another country (the population of Luxembourg increases by 25% during working days). Luxembourg itself is off many people's radars because of its utter blandness and lack of presence (how many famous Luxembourgers do you know?), and that is how the Luxembourgers like it. As a country of bankers (and not just in the rhyming slang sense) they have a reputation of being rather bland and unexciting and probably too busy counting money, as there is certainly a lot of it about - Luxembourg is the richest country in the world per capita with a GDP of $88,000 a year ($15,000 ahead of number two Norway and double that of the USA). Perhaps the reason they don't advertise themselves so much is that other people might easily get jealous. I don't know if I'd be jealous of their money, but I do envy their rolling hills covered with forests and studded with castles as well as their pretty little villages, a veritable heaven for hiking. The eponymous capital city is also one of the most beautiful (if not most exciting) in the world, built as it is on a plateau above a winding river, so that it is possible to get away from the bustle of the city just by descending to the valley with its village-like feel and be among the trees and little gardens. Another interesting aspect of Luxembourg city is its fortifications. 150 years ago the city was one huge fortress (with the epithet Gibraltar of the North) and much desired by the French, the Austrians, the Spanish and the Prussians, all of whom ruled the unfortunate duchy at some point. Only the extensive underground casemates remain in anything resembling their original condition as most of the above-ground defences were dismantled to stop other countries fighting over its strategic importance.

I don't generally write much about the day to day details and practicalities of travelling - finding food and accommodation, getting lost, getting information, getting from A to B, last minute changes in plans, etc, etc. - since I'm sure it would make pretty dull reading (and I really can't be bothered writing all that crap). Plus it would seem to me an indulgent exercise in fishing for sympathy by trying to draw attention to the difficulties and hardships of the trip (and there have been a few) when it is something that I have decided to do and can easily stop at any moment and hop on a plane home. No, the positives far outweigh the negatives and I have no regrets. However it is certainly not a holiday as every day has to be planned, there are always new things to be learned and experienced and you have to keep moving. Falling ill is therefore particularly annoying as, on the one hand, you are not at home and therefore you don't have all your little comforts that may help you recover quicker (such as being able to make yourself a cuppa as and when you feel like it), and on the other hand you can't just sit around hoping to get better and so you have to just grin and bear it and hope the illness goes away by itself. So for the past few days I've been carrying a cough/cold around with me and feeling somewhat under the weather. Things got a bit unpleasant today as my sweatshirt sleeve risked becoming saturated with my phlegm (I'm not really a hanky person) but I feel I have finally got over the worst of it and should be as right as rain in a few days.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Slapping On Some Cologne

My favourite city in Germany is undoubtedly Cologne, and I try, whenever travelling through the country, to make a stop. The frequent stops are mostly to do with the fact that my uncle and cousins live there, but visiting them is made much easier by them living in the most cosmopolitan, comfortable and laid back city in the country, full to the brim with students and a vibrant cultural scene. By coincidence, Yann, one of my best friends from school now lives and works here as well as Sabine who I met in China, so I've been doing a fair bit of catching up along with the usual investigative travelling.

Throughout the world the name Cologne has been made famous by its eponymous water invented almost 300 years ago. It's lucky that the French, under Napoleon, took over Cologne a while later otherwise we would be anointing ourselves with Kölnisch Wasser instead of Eau de Cologne (which, I'm sure you'll agree, sounds far more fancy). Within Germany itself the city is more famous for its Karneval celebrations which are the biggest party in the country, much more so than the notorious Oktoberfest which is just an overpriced booze-up for foreigners. For Kölners themselves, however, it is the Dom (cathedral) which is the true symbol of the city. The gigantic building, with its twin, Gothic spires dominates the skyline and is often the first thing visitors notice when approaching the city. Started in 1248 it has been continually under construction ever since (local legend says that the completion of the cathedral will bring about Judgement Day) and for a brief period following the erection of the spires in 1880 it was the tallest building in the world. Its size and overbearing Gothicness are enough to make the cathedral unique, but it is also the most important pilgrimage site in Germany housing as it does the reliquary of the 3 Kings (supposedly containing the remains of the three Magi of the Nativity). There are of course your usual baroque palaces full of extravagant rococo interiors, frescoes and stucco cherubs covering every free inch of wall space; and despite the fact that I'm a big fan of baroque opulence, it is getting a bit samey now.

For those interested in European history the nearby city of Aachen is of great symbolic significance. It was from here that Charlemagne ruled his Frankish empire which covered pretty much all of modern-day France, Germany, Benelux as well as large portions of northern Italy and Switzerland and parts of northern Spain. For many he goes as the father of western Europe and the EU and his reign heralded the rise of the Holy Roman empire which went on to dominate central Europe for the next millennium. I have realised whilst looking into Charlemagne and his contemporaries that, at least in Britain, our history lessons in school jump from the fall of Rome to around 1066AD, and somehow manage to skip the intervening 600 years with a disdainful "those were the Dark Ages" and possibly the odd mention of Vikings. In fact I have come to find out that they were actually rather exciting times when entire peoples were on the move, sweeping across Europe from east to west: Visigoths, Huns, Alans, Ostrogoths, Avars, Slavs, Magyars, Saxons, Lombards and of course the Franks. Strange, exotic names that may mean little to us but form the basis of us Europeans today. It's a real pity as the battles, intrigues and alliances are prime soap opera material.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Travelling Without A Hitch

From Franconia my path headed northwestwards along two of Germany's great rivers: the Main and the Rhine until I finally reached Cologne smelling in need of some of its water. It's no secret that Germany is a rather pricey country and the trains are particularly dear, so I've been trying my hardest to get around by hitchhiking, with mixed results. At the start, in Franconia, it was deceptively easy and my average waiting time was less than half an hour. On one occasion, trying to get between Bayreuth and Bamberg I was standing at a junction and a lady stopped to say that unfortunately she wasn't going in my direction … but would I like some bread, and proceeded to hand me a loaf of organic wholewheat bread (which was indeed very welcome). Then I was picked up by a couple with two little kids and ended up being offered to spend the night with them. Such events help me keep my faith in humanity because hitching can be emotionally draining when you stand by the side of the road and are continually ignored by innumerable drivers, oblivious in their vehicle cocoons, not wanting to know, not wanting to care, afraid of the unknown. It seems to me, having talked to older people who hitched in their youth that the number of hitchers, and certainly those that are willing to pick them up, has decreased dramatically over the past generation. The world has lost some of its innocence and people are scared of dangers that have become hyped and are grotesquely misformed urban myths. Everyone, of course, has heard of gruesome hitching stories, but I have yet to meet someone who knows of an actual case, somebody they know, or a real story in the news, and not just vague Chinese whispers. For me every experience has been fun and I have got to meet some very interesting people. In fact I find the whole fear of hitchers rather ridiculous, I mean you would have to be a pretty stupid psychopath to stand out on a road for hours on end, sometimes in quite unpleasant weather conditions, until a random person decided to pick you up (if anyone were to pick you up at all). You would be much better off stalking someone, at least that way you would be able to choose your quarry and would have more say over your hours. And so it was, the further north and west I got the harder it became to get a ride, and on a couple of occasions I was even forced to abandon my principles and catch the train.

Whilst on the subject of travelling cheaply and faith in humainty I feel I ought to mention something that has been a highlight of my travelling of the past few months, and that is namely CouchSurfing. Many of you will probably be scratching your heads and so I shall briefly explain. It is a website where you sign up and enter in some personal details along with your address. Then if people happen to be travelling to your town they can do a search on the website, find you out and then write you an e-mail requesting to stay with you for a day or more (some people who cannot offer accomodation offer a tour of the area or even a quick coffee). You are then free to accept or decline. And when you are then on the road you can also find people and ask to stay with them. Now for many people it might sound crazy to let a complete stranger to stay in your house and that the system is wide open to abuse and misuse. But I have only had amazing experiences and met wonderful people who have opened their houses to me (several times even giving me their house keys) and hope to stay in touch with many of them. It just goes to show that there are many generous and amazing people out there who help others in many little ways that are generally unseen and unheard. So a big thank you to all those Couchsurfers who have hosted me; and now back to the trip.

My voyage through central Germany has taken me through the historic cities of Würzburg and Mainz, both seats of powerful bishoprics (historically, in the Catholic church, the archbishop of Mainz was second only to the Pope) and with large, imposing cathedrals to match their stature. (As an aside, I've always been fascinated by all the various saintly relics that are kept and venerated by the church, and often wonder about collecting them all together and creating, along the lines of Frankenstein, a super-holy undead monster.) Mainz also has some interesting Roman remains (though of course they pale in comparison to the ruins that can be found in the Middle East) from its days as an outpost of the frontier with, bizarrely enough, the remains of a temple dedicated to the Egyptian goddess Isis. The town's biggest claim to fame, however, is as the home of the last millenium's most important invention (according to Time magazine at least): printing using movable type. This was the home of Johannes Gensfleisch (aka Gutenberg) when, some 550 years ago, he inadvertantly started a cultural revolution that was to spread throughout the world. For an avowedly bookish person like myself a visit to the Gutenberg museum was a must, and although the exhibition itself was somewhat disappointing there was a pretty cool live demonstration of the whole printing process.

Then following the Rhine one comes to the famous section somewhat confusing known as the Upper Middle Rhine valley. Although these days Germany isn't immediately thought of as a holiday destination (or even a particularly romantic one at that) in the 19th century this was the premier destination for wealthy Victorians travelling to get a taste of Europe, and it's easy to see why. The steep slopes are home to some of the best vineyards in the world and at the same time prevent the development of anything but the most picturesque of towns, add a generous dusting of ruined castles (such as the Pfalzgrafenstein below built on the most improbable little island in the middle of the river) and to top it off you have the mighty river flowing majestically through the middle as it has done so since the dawn of history.

Friday, August 10, 2007

To Be Frank

Having lived for a while in northern Germany before I would say I know a bit about the country, its history and its culture. In my eyes the southern state of Bavaria was one homogeneous whole populated by Bavarians. I was pretty quickly taught the error of my ways. The northern half of the state is called Franken (in English Franconia) and is populated by Franks who, up until Napoleon came barging through, had their own, independent kingdom and language of which they are extremely proud. And so Franks will politely, but firmly, point out your ignorance if you happen to refer to them as Bavarians, not least because Bavarians aren't particularly popular in Germany and so it's better for the Franks not to be associated with them (as a Scot I understand completely).

The unofficial capital of Franconia is Nuremberg. In the middle ages the city had a special status as the first imperial city of the Holy Roman Emperors, a reputation which was employed centuries later by Hitler to provide symbolic legitimacy to his Nazi party by making it the focal point of his Nazi cult. It was here that the monumental Reichsparteitag rallies (also known as the Nuremberg rallies), made famous by the films of Leni Riefenstahl where upwards of a million people would parade for the Nazi propaganda machine, were held. The gargantuan parade grounds were never really finished but have been preserved as a memorial to the dangers of hateful megalomania. And the Germans must certainly be commended on the care and effort they devote to ensuring that the horrors of Nazism are remembered so that they may never be repeated. Due to its strong Nazi ties the city, and especially the medieval old city centre, was systematically destroyed by Allied bombing. In one hour, in one day in 1945 90% of the city was reduced to rubble in a largely symbolic act (and one which I, personally, feel was somewhat excessive). During the reconstruction after the war the old centre was rebuilt along the original lines, but in a more modern, simple style, giving the centre a strange old-yet-new feel.

There are plenty of other things to see in Franconia, from sweet little towns to fairytale castles. Standard fare for central Europe I suppose. What is very particular to southern Germany, however, is the tradition of beerfests. The most famous of these is of course the Oktoberfest in Munich which, from what I have heard, has become a bit too commercial and touristified, however many towns in the region hold their own local beerfests (the area has the highest concentration of breweries in the world). And so a few days ago I hooked up with an unlikely band (two Germans, an American, a Mexican and a Latvian) to sample the joys of this most south German of festivals. And indeed many of the classic cliches, such as lederhosen, big barmaids carrying a half-dozen litre glasses of beer, sausages and bad music were all present. But it had a magical atmosphere, with seemingly the whole town packed under a huge tent lined wall to wall with benches and tables, and by the end of the evening the whole place was standing on the benches and merrily swaying (one could hardly call it dancing) to the music, which had, in the intervening hours and beers, become Grammy-winning material. The only downside was the monstrous hangover the next day when I spent a good deal of time getting better acquainted with the finer details of the toilet bowl.

Monday, August 06, 2007

What's In A Name?

To the disinterested observer a name is just a word we use to distinguish one thing (or person or place) from other things. As Shakespeare said: "That which we call a rose, By any other name would smell as sweet." But, as Juliet was to brutally find out, names are more than just mere words and far too often are accorded a disproportionate importance that far outweighs all reason. Names take on a life of their own and become symbols for much greater things that can arouse unbelievable acts of passion and violence. And so, with sudden or brutal changes of regime, amongst the first things to be changed are the names of streets, buildings, entire towns or even mountains. Such name changes are generally a way of trying to rewrite the past to control the present or to gain cheap, populist sympathies. One example that I've already mentioned on my travels is the recent, obsessive trend, in India, of renaming anything that might have colonial connotations.

Here in western Bohemia there used to a large German minority (in many places they were even the majority) who had lived side by side with the Czechs since the 13th century. Often they were very successful and dominated public life - when reading about the history of the region Czech names are few and far between, and many things that are deemed quintessentially Czech were actually invented by Germans, most notably the two national drinks: the foul herbal liqueur Becherovka, which is regarded by many Czechs as medicine and prescribed for any ailment, real or imagined, and Pilsner Urquell, the original pilsner beer. Therefore almost every town here also has a second, German name (e.g. the German name for the town of Cheb is Eger and they call Loket Ellenbogen, etc.). But that's not the main topic of today's post.

In the pretty border town of Cheb I was hosted by a friendly local girl called Aneta Daika. Now, any Czech seeing that name would immediately find it strange and demand to know what had happened to her ová. That's not because the nation has some strange gynaecological obsession but because every woman's surname in Czech has to end in -ová (or in some rare cases just -á). Therefore my mother's name isn't Jelinek like mine but ought to be Jelinková instead. The same goes for foreign females. Here in the press they talk about Angelina Jollieová and Segolene Royalová. The language just cannot deal with male and female surnames being the same. And so as soon as they are born Czech girls, unless they belong to a minority like the Roma or Magyars, are branded with an ová whether they like it or not. Most women are ambivalent towards their ová but some, like Aneta, think it stupid, archaic, sexist and might make things difficult for them outside of their country. But if every Czech woman must have an ová how do you get rid of it? The answer lies in a bizarre ceremony that Aneta will do today whereby she must go to the town of her birth and renounce her Czech nationality (though not her citizenship mind you) and take up a minority nationality. Therefore Aneta has decided to join the ranks of the small British minority, living in the Czech Republic, despite having no connections to Britain (except being fond of the comedy series Little Britain). Ridiculous as it may sound this is the only way for a Czech woman to get rid of her ová without an operation.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Czeching Out

I've spent a bit longer here in Prague than I had at first planned (so nothing new there) but I finally leave tomorrow morning after having said my goodbyes to all my friends here, invariably involving the intake of several pints of beer (it would be safe to say that I have drunk more of the amber nectar whilst here than during the whole of the rest of my travels put together). It has certainly been good to see my Czech friends again as it gives me an important connection with the country. It has also been interesting to see how their lives have advanced and changed since I last saw them: new girlfriends, marriage, careers, mortgages, pets and (for some at least) a few extra kilos. All these things have been put on hold whilst I have been travelling, being in a sort of "real-life stasis". After seeing how far they have advanced with their lives I've been wondering how employable I'm going to be when I get back. (Prospective job interview: "So Mr Jelinek, what skills have you learnt in your past three years that would help you in our sales department?", "Well, I can ask for food and accommodation in halting Arabic, I can set up a tent in 5 minutes and I can comment on recent political developments in Georgia within a historical context ... I'll just show myself out then.") The closer I get to my return the more I'm getting preoccupied by what it will be like.

I did manage to visit some sights here and there that I hadn't seen before. I keep being amazed by how many towns seem to be lifted straight out of the Middle Ages, with fairytale castles and imaculately preserved Renaissance and Baroque buildings around achingly picturesque town squares: Domažlice, Telč, Český Krumlov, Holašovice and many more. In Prague I also paid a visit to one of my favourite museums: the Czech national museum. It's a bit of a pick 'n mix museum with archaeological, historical and mineralogical exhibits, but what I enjoy most is the zoological section with its innumerable cabinets and cases of stuffed and mounted birds, mammals, fish, insects each more weird and exotic than the next. So much more magical than the latest penchant for making everything multimedia and interactive. I was also rewarded by an extra special exhibit that was on display for the first time in decades - the so-called Venus of Věstonice. At only 10cm the rather unassuming little statuette doesn't look like much, but at 30,000 years old it is the oldest piece of pottery in the world and shows how stone-age man liked his women (certainly not supermodel-skinny!).

I also managed to get some important bureaucratic paperwork done as well, namely getting my new Czech passport which should come in handy, though perhaps not on this trip. Actually I think I might use it exclusively from now on seeing as it cost a fifth of the price of my British one and has plenty of space for further visas and stamps. There is one drawback and that is that it has biometric details and a chip in it, which I am personally against on the principle that it's just another step towards an Orwellian Big Brother society and has details that can be accessed without my knowledge. It's all part of this so-called War on Terror that is, in my eyes, just an excuse to reduce civil liberties and personal freedoms. If there was a real war on terror then we wouldn't have news such as we had earlier this week when the US announced it would be selling 20 billion dollars more arms to the Persian Gulf countries. The one sure fire of not making the world a safer place is by flooding it with arms. But I digress; it is late and I plan to leave early tomorrow morning ... and, as per usual, I amn't in the least ready or packed. With me everything has be done in a rush at the last minute.