Thursday, July 29, 2004

Losses And When To Cut Them

Here I am back in Prague much earlier than planned and without having gone to Croatia. "How come? what happened Erik?" I hear the sorrowing multitude implore. Well, it seemed as if the gods themselves were conspiring against us (OK, I'm an atheist, but I like the fatalistic sound of that phrase).

As I mentioned in my previous post it was already a battle to get to Slovenia, but once there we had pretty much the same problems that we had in Slovakia. None of the connections and transport possibilities down to Croatia were favourable for us. We had even managed to figure out a super itinerary, but when we got to the train station at 6:30 in the morning (which meant that we had to get up at 5:20 to pack the (wet) tent, pay for the camping and get a bus into town) to get the train to Pula we were told that it only ran on the weekends; aaarrrggghhh! Anyway, we decided that, instead of making some half-assed compromise to get down there in a round about way, we thought it would be better to cut our losses and return to Prague. On the way back, not to be completely defeated, we also stopped at a Slovenian town called Bled (which the francophones I'm sure will find amusing, at least I did anyway) with a castle (on a hill, of course), which was overpriced (no student reductions!), and a lovely little lake  with a tiny island monastery in the middle.

Despite the trip going pear-shaped towards the end, I am an eternal optimist and like to see the good in everything, and therefore am not wholly disappointed with the trip. Along the way I got to see some pretty amazing sights and learnt more about two countries of which I knew very little to begin with. Anyway, here's the lowdown on Slovenia:

- Slovenia is not at all what I thought it would be like. I thought it would be like Czech, but in fact both the people and the country are more akin to the Austrians and the Germans than the Slavs. The country is far tidier and well kept, people are more respectful of rules and regulations, there's a great attention to detail and, as Yann mentioned to me on several occasions, the Slovenes physically resemble the Germans more than they do the Czechs (more on that later). Slovenia is also by far and away the most developed of the ex-communist countries (I wouldn't be surprised if it was more developed than even Greece or Portugal) and therefore should not be your first choice for a cheap holiday, as the prices are very similar to those in western Europe. Topographically it is also mainly hills, mountains and forests, which were quite beautiful as we drove through.

- Ljubljana is a pretty little city (barely bigger than Aberdeen with a quarter of a million inhabitants) that probably draws many comparisons with Venice (I won't compare it to Venice as I have never been there, although it is on my list...) due to the buildings and bridges by the river (the Ljubljanica). It has a ubiquitous castle on a hill which is worth a visit as well and the tourist information service is exemplary. All in all, for those of you with jobs, it makes a charming weekend break destination.

- I also learnt a few choice phrases, thanks to Mitja, that are apparently intelligible in Serbo-Croat as well: picko materno (peechko maternoh) and prokleto srane (prokletoh sranyeh). Although I can't remember exactly what they mean, they appeared to be in the local vernacular.
- And finally, and this one I really like, if you look closely,  Slovenia looks like a chicken. By that I mean the outline of the country brings to mind a chicken. And on that note I'll let you go off to consult your atlases.

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Mice And Men

First off a big hello to Marko and Mitja, two very friendly police officers who we met in Maribor, but more about that later.

Plans. As Rabbie Burns once said, they often "gang a-glay" (I'm sure that my non-English readers are going to have fun looking that one up!) and it's no different for us. The original idea was to do Croatia and Slovenia. After a rather disheartening day at Bratislava coach station and the local internet cafe, where we were franticly looking up different possibilities and combinations of getting to Croatia and back, we are now well into Plan D. I won't bore you with all the various permutations of the other Plans, but suffice to say that one involved taking a coach from Bratislava to Budapest, staying the night (somewhere), getting the (very) early train to Zagreb and then, finally, getting a coach to the coast. Now we are taking the car to Ljubljana, hopefully leaving it there, and then going the rest of the way by bus.

All that hassle took up the best part of the day and so we left Bratislava at 5pm and drove through Austria to Slovenia. We didn't really have time to stop in Austria, but I must say, that when it comes to being environmentally friendly, our teutonic co-europeans put us Brits (and the French too) to shame. Just over from the Slovakian border there's a huge wind farm with probably more turbines than in the whole of the UK, even though we have a much greater potential for them. All we do is talk incessantly and bomb other countries, rather than doing something constructive. Then you've got all those bloody NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard) who say "we're all in favour in principle, but here it would spoil the view / be too loud / insert excuse here." People have to realise that it's the least worst option and that doing nothing is NOT an option. Oh my god, I'm ranting again, so I'd better get back to the story.

So we get to Maribor (Slovenia's second city with a population of around 150 thousand) at 9pm, it's dark, it's raining and we haven't the foggiest idea as to where to stay. So we start asking around for youth hostels and campings (by the way, even though Czech and Slovenian are similar, and I can understand written Slovenian quite well, it's best to communicate in either English or German as most people speak one or the other). After about 1 hour of getting several different directions and getting hopelessly lost in the process, we were about to give up when we ran into two (slightly tipsy) guys coming out of an internet cafe. We thought we'd give it one last chance and asked them and they said: "yeah yeah yeah, no problems, we know the way. We drive there and you follow us, but first we got to bar and have a few drinks, OK?"

We promptly agreed (as we had nothing better to do, and so started our adventure with Mitja and Marko. We got the bar and had a beer and started talking. They turned out to be off-duty police officers and brothers as well and were very friendly. We finished our beers and they then drove us to the youth hostel, which in the meantime had shut for the night. That only left us with one option: to go to another bar. When we finally left the last bar (after 1am) Mitja drove us back to ours in his car. Even though he had clearly had a few, he said "no problems, I have a permit to drive drunk" and it seemed to be true because we passed several police cars and they all honked in acknowledgement. Upon returning to the car we could only really sleep there, which, looking positively on it, at least didn't cost us anything!

Anyway, must go now, as internet cafes in Slovenia are not as cheap as they are in Slovakia.

Sunday, July 25, 2004

Some Of My Least Favourite Things

Although travelling is great fun it's not always a bed of roses; so here is a list of some of the things that have irritated me so far:

1. Mosquitoes! One of the little buggers managed to get me on the sole of my foot. God knows how he managed to do it but walking has become slightly more problematic. Although luckily I am not allergic to mosquito bites, unlike Yann. Unlucky mate.

2. Slovak road signposting. As a seasoned traveller I would like to think that I am able to reasonably read a map and understand where I am going. However, on more than one occasion we have been bamboozled by the Slovak road authorities' lack of signposting ability. It has, on the other hand, led to one instance of driving down the wrong side of a motorway under construction (rather hair-raising at the time) and the wrong way down a one-way turning.

3. Muscles. Or rather my muscles' lack of fitness and conditioning. Yesterday, the day after our escapades in the mountains I was feeling fine, but today, with an evil delayed effect, my thigh muscles were screaming in agony whilst going downhill of all things. Hopefully I will have recovered by the time we get to Croatia. (This does not, however, bode well for trekking in South America. Note to self: get fit!)

Saturday, July 24, 2004


While in Czech my best friend from school Yann and his mate from work Arnaud came over so that we could do a little tour of Central Europe. Since none of us had been to Slovakia (except for me, but only for a day) we decided to head off there as I had heard that there's some pretty neat things to see and do.

So we headed off from Prague towards Bratislava, but upon buying a map of Slovakia on the border we discovered that Bratislava is actually quite far south, away from the mountains we wanted to see, so we decided instead to do the mountains first and then head down to Bratislava (such last minute changes to travelling plans seem to be the rule rather than the exception when I'm travelling). Just driving through the Slovak towns you can get a sense of the different way of life over here: it's very laid back and people seem to spend quite a bit of time doing outdoorsy activities (cycling, swimming, canoeing, hiking, etc). There's also a (pleasantly) high proportion of quite attractive women, which makes driving along all the more enjoyable.  And even though it is a foreign country it's great that I can communicate with little difficulty with the autochthonous population as Slovak is just badly pronounced Czech with every word having a letter or two changed, although there are a few evil words out there that are completely different from the Czech.

Anyway, our destination for the evening was the town of Trencin with its imposing 16th century castle on a hill above the town. That's one thing that you notice about Slovakia: every other hilltop has got its own castle or at least some castle ruins. So therefore on our way to Trencin we stopped off at Cachtice where there are the remains of the castle of the "Bloody Countess" Elizabeth Bathory who managed to kill 600 young virgins (see link for details) along with the cell in which she was finally locked up and died. Trencin itself is a really pleasant town with a pretty and compact town centre beneath the castle.

The next day we headed off to the Little Fatras (a small mountain range in the north of Slovakia, and hence the title of the post) where I had heard that there were some excellent hiking trails. When we arrived we only had a few hours so we did a little trail called Nizske Diery (at least I think that's what it was called). My god it was fantastic, and probably worth the trip alone: ti starts off quite inconspicuously but soon your walking along walkways through extremely thin gorges with water falling all around you. Very cool! (I'll try and post some photos or at least set up a link when I've got more time.) The next day we decided to do a longer trek through the range, although luck wasn't really on our side as the clouds were very low and most of the time we were in them, so we didn't get to see the views (that, I'm reliably told, are magnificent). However, the walk itself was fun and a useful bit of exercise, although I'm amazed by some of the trails, which were at almost 45 degrees in places, both going up and down, and so I'm not embarassed to admit that on more than one occasion I had a bit of a slip on the descent.

And now we are in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, which has a cute little old town with some well-preserved buildings and the ubiquitous castle on a hill, from which you get a lovely view across the Danube to the other side of the town. Well, it would be lovely if the communists hadn't built their concrete monstrosities there; it serves as a reminder of why no-one in their right mind would want to go back to that (but that rant shall have to wait for some other time).

Must dash now as I'm running out of time in the internet cafe. So without further ado I shall take my leave, and, as the Slovaks say, na videnou.

Monday, July 19, 2004


Don't be fooled by the title, today's entry is not going to be about personal hygiene (those of you who know me better know that there wouldn't be much for me to talk about). No, in fact I am (or was until a couple of days ago) in Cologne visiting my uncle and cousins for a few days before going on to visit my Dad in Czech.

I quite like Germany as it is generally very clean and well looked-after and the people are usually quite friendly, and Cologne in particular is a particularly pleasant city. I didn't really do anything touristy on this visit as I have already pretty much seen all there is to see of interest in Cologne, although I am always impressed by the Dom (cathedral), which you cannot miss, in the centre of town. It is a huge gothic cathedral and at one point used to be the tallest building in the world, and so you can get some fantastic views from the top (as well as a nice bit of exercise by having to climb all those stairs). Unfortunately, apart from the Dom and a few squares next to it, very little is left of old Cologne as it was mostly flattened during the second world war.

Which leads me nicely onto my first rant (because, honestly, what good is a blog without rants?), so if you're not particularly interested to hear me harp on about random issues then just move on to the next entry. Anyway, today's rant takes its inspiration from the cliched (but true) saying that "history is written by the winners (of wars)". You see, we're endlessly reminded in books, schools and TV documentaries (especially on channel 5) of the evil hun, the Blitz, the Holocaust, the Nuremberg trials, etc. and I do not in any way want to detract from that. What the Nazis did was abhorrent and it was right that they should pay for their war crimes. However there were also certain circumstances when the behaviour of the allies was far from angelic, and there are two cases in particular (although there are others as well): the fire bombing of Dresden and the dropping of the nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. My problem is not with bombing during wartime per se, but the timing and targetting of the bombing raids. Both were carried out when it was obvious that the allies would win, and, more importantly, they were carried out on strategically unimportant targets i.e. the main objective was to kill the greatest number of civilians.

Oh sure, there are those who say that it was to break the morale of the Germans (in the case of Dresden), but that argument can easily be countered by showing that such bombing has exactly the opposite effect as was abundantly demonstrated by the Blitz. As for the atom bombs, the general argument for their use was that the Pacific war would have carried on for much longer if they hadn't been used and would therefore have cost more lives. OK, but surely it would have been possible to drop the first bomb in a sparsely populated area, to show the devastating power of the bomb with minimum casualties, and then deliver an ultimatum saying that if the Japanese didn't surrendur they would drop another one on a city. Instead they killed 140 000 civilians on the 2 days (they expressly didn't leave enough time between the 2 bombing runs for Japan to surrender) and nearly as many afterwards due to the effects of the radiation. Yet it was unthinkable that anybody should have to answer for these events.

What, you may ask, does this have to do with anything happening today? that's all in the past, isn't it? Well, the problem is that history has an annoying habit of repeating itself. Just last week both Bush and Blair were exonerated for their role in starting the war, which to all intents and purposes was initiated on a lie. That's absolutely ridiculous: you can't just go and invade a country, kill thousands upon thousands of civilians and get away scott free. It just makes me sick. Yes I know Saddam was a bad dictator who killed his own people, etc. etc. but doing this sets an extremely dangerous precedent, and I don't see Britain and America rushing to get rid of Mugabe, the military Junta in Myanmar, Kim Jong-Il or any other of the numerous despots that litter the globe (usually in Africa). It's just hypocrisy and we all know the reason for it.

But there's not only that, but now the whole world hates Britain and America (me included) it's going to be more difficult for me to go travelling as there will be an automatic animosity towards me on the basis of my nationality. Damn you Blair!

Thursday, July 08, 2004


Well, the piccy didn't quite work, but I'm still working on it. Anyway, I might as well let you know about what happened this weekend: it was the ultimate frisbee Britopen tournament down in Eastbourne and I was entered with the Birmingham team, the Shirtninjas (for those of you not acquainted with ultimate, half the energy is spent inventing weird and wonderful team names, such as: Discqualified, SlipDisc, Flyght Club... the list is endless). Things got off to a bad start when, upon arriving, we found out that we had no substitutes as various people had dropped out along the way due to injury, last-minute work commitments and demanding girlfriends (you know who you are Tim). Having no substitutes is not a good thing, as most well-organised teams usually come with enough people for an extra complete line-up, which, coupled with the fact that I had not done any serious excercise for some time, meant that I was going to be in for some pain by the end of the weekend.

The second problem we encountered was one that was universal to all teams: the weather. My god was it ever windy. And let me tell you, throwing frisbees into the wind is neither easy nor much fun. So most of the games on the first 2 days were dictated by whoever could manage to score against the wind or, more usually, whoever won the toss at the start of the game to choose ends.

I'm not going to bore you all with the minutiae of every match (mostly because I can't be assed writing it) but suffice to say that I think we did very well. We were seeded 35th (out of 40) and ended up 27th, an especially well-earned position considering the afore-mentioned lack of substitutes. The atmosphere at the tournament was also very friendly and laid-back with opposing teams having a laugh and playing fun party games together, even after hard-fought matches, which is, I suppose, the beauty of the game: the fact that the spirit of the game is still the most important thing. Anyway, I'd better nip this in the bud before I start waxing lyrical. It is now Wednesday and I have recovered enough to walk along without wincing at every step (which is far sooner than I'd hoped).