Heading into the heavens

HEALTH WARNING! Medical authorities have required that I place a warning at the beginning of this post, warning that readers with a history of vertigo or any condition likely to cause dizziness and/or nausea should only proceed beyond this point after receiving advice from your doctor.

As I write and post this blog, in a few hours we will be heading into the heavens, winging our way home after nearly seven weeks on the road. Of course, here in Germany they have already been in heaven since Sunday night. Too much heaven with fireworks, car horn tooting and general yahooing until well into the wee small hours.

As we fly heavenwards, so do our thoughts, assisted perhaps by the numerous churches, chapels and cathedrals we have visited during these weeks. Even more than thoughts, my eyes turn heavenwards as I remember the extraordinary ceilings that many of these churches feature. At the same time, Oscar’s eyes turn heavenwards as his old man takes out his camera yet one more time for another ‘really boring’ photograph.

Well, sad to say, you, dear reader, will now be subjected to those same moments of ecclesiastical exasperation as I subject you to the same boredom of having to contemplate these ceilings. Let you be the judge.

A curious fact about many of these churches, particularly in Belgium and Germany, is that these old building are in fact not so old, having been largely destroyed, or at least severely damaged during two 20th century world wars, not to mention earlier wars and sundry natural disasters. Others have suffered years of neglect under communist rule and have only recently been given the care and money they need.

Church of St Nikolai, Potsdam. Built in the 1830s, damaged through bombing during World War 2 and reconsecrated in 1981.

Church of St Nikolai, Potsdam. Built in the 1830s, damaged through bombing during World War 2 and reconsecrated in 1981.

The extraordinary World heritage listed Cologne Cathedral, built over six centuries from 1248 and again badly damaged during the war.

The extraordinary World Heritage listed High Cathedral of St Peter at Cologne, built over six centuries from 1248. It was also badly damaged during the war although its 157m high twin spires provided a useful landmark for British and American bomber crews.

Bruges cathedral

Sint-Salvator Cathedral, Bruges, built over six centuries from the 12th century.

Church of St. Nicholas, Mesens, Belgium

Church of St. Nicholas, Mesen, Belgium. Almost totally destroyed during World War One and rebuilt since. Hitler is said to have recuperated from wounds in the crypt which was used as a dressing station.

Munster, Basel.

The ceiling of a chapel in the Munster, Basel, built between 1019 and 1500, and severely damaged by earthquakes rather than war!

Detail of the ceiling of St Peter's Church, Basel,

Detail of the ceiling of St Peter’s Church, Basel, built in the 13th century.

Kapelle in the tiny mountain village of Imfeld, Switzerland.

St. Christophrus Kapelle in the tiny mountain village of Imfeld, Switzerland.

The Host of the Chapel, Eguisheim, France

The Host of the Chapel, Eguisheim, France

The eleventh century Romanesque abbey church of St Peter and  St Paul at Ottmarsheim in France.

The 11th century Romanesque abbey church of St Peter and
St Paul at Ottmarsheim in France. A truly beautiful church’s do quite unlike any other we visited.

St Nicholas Cathedral in Prague, built in the

St Nicholas church in Prague, a very baroque church built in the 18th century.

The Our Lady of the Snow Church in Prague, commenced in the 14th century, damaged in wars, neglected and finally taken over by the Franciscan order.

The Our Lady of the Snow Church in Prague, commenced in the 14th century, damaged in wars, neglected and finally taken over by the Franciscan order.

 

The very baroque St Jacob's Basilica in Prague, built, rebuilt and repaired several times from the 13th century.

The very baroque St Jacob’s Basilica in Prague, built, rebuilt and repaired several times from the 13th century.

And now we move to our final port of call, the industrial Czech city of Plzen. Are you bored yet? Fear not, only two to go!

St Bartholomew's Cathedral in Plzen with the country's highest spire, which has been rebuilt several times since the church was built between 1295 and the early 16th century.

St Bartholomew’s Cathedral in Plzen with the country’s highest spire, which has been rebuilt several times since the church was built between 1295 and the early 16th century.

And finally, not a Christian church, but the Great Synagogue in Plzen, built in the late 19th century with money later donated towards it by Will’s grandfather, Simon, and uncle, Robert. Does this give a clue to the family’s decision to leave in 1939?

The Great Synagogue, Plzen. Built in the late 19th century, damaged during the war and neglected thereafter until the 1990s.

The Great Synagogue, Plzen. Built in the late 19th century, damaged during the war and neglected thereafter until the 1990s. There is still much work to do.

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So, contemplate these as we wing our own way through the heavens.  I just hope this post hasn’t made you dizzy!

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Top Secret: Searching for Soviet Man

Maybe it’s because I have been reading John Le Carre novels while here that I have been looking for signs of the Cold War here in Europe. The Berlin Wall and Checkpoint Charlie have obviously been on the tourist trail. But what other more sinister signs are there? It was my mission to find out.

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Unknown to you I was approached before leaving Tasmania by persons placed in significant positions in our nation’s security services to go undercover on this trip (don’t tell Helen or Oscar – that would be a security breach) and seek out evidence of Soviet activity. Particularly in the former East European countries we were visiting, the GDR and Czechoslovakia. Here is my report, as you see marked “Top Secret” and so for your eyes only. The blog will self destruct 10 seconds after you finish reading it. If you divulge any of its contents to anyone I will be forced to send in one of my agents to kill you. Consider yourself warned.

First Report – Dateline: June 1. Place: Berlin 

Soviet activity is evident in Berlin if you know where to look. Firstly, the traffic lights, in true Communist fashion, are coloured red and say STOP! These lights infiltrated West Berlin from East Berlin after the Wall came down in 1989. Those who didn’t stop, who didn’t heed the warning and tried to cross the Wall met with an undesired end. These people are remembered …

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In nearby Potsdam there is definite sign of activity in a centrally located graveyard. Here lie brave Russian comrades who gave their lives to liberate the town from the fascist Nazi regime in 1945, and thereafter protect it from counter-revolutionary tendencies that arose from time to time. Evidence of the best efforts of Soviet architects was also uncovered and recorded for this report.

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Second Report – Dateline: 30 June. Place: Prague, former Czechoslovakia

The city of  Prague was reached on the afternoon of  30 June, 2014 and an immediate search instituted for evidence of Soviet activity. A potential secret agent, possibly a double agent, was soon seen to be utilising advanced spyware to conceal himself and maintain a constant surveillance on a street of interest. It has not been ascertained whose interests he represented, but the red nature of his surroundings raised my suspicions.

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Nearby, the use of barbed wire also aroused my suspicions, although again my contacts were unable to provide me with accurate intelligence concerning its provenance. In a church frequented by visitors there was evidence of anti-western activity, although it is unclear whether this represented a call to arms or measures to maintain the security of sensitive military installations.

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Third Report – Dateline: 7 July. Place: Plzen, former Czechoslovakia

Bingo! At last definite evidence that Soviet Man (and Woman, even Child) has been revealed at enormous personal risk. This is the price I am prepared to pay for the great love of my country. Our party arrived at the Plzen central railway station at 10.56 hrs. I immediately sensed that this was no ordinary railway station and succeeded in disengaging from my travelling companions for several minutes to investigate further. I was able to photograph clear evidence of Soviet activity with my carefully concealed camera and develop them that afternoon in a secret portable developing kit provided to me for this mission. These highly sensitive photographs are appended.

A statue of a member of the proletariat stands guard, reminding comrades of the central importance of the working man, as opposed to a bloke on a horse, to the working man's paradise.

A statue of a member of the proletariat stands guard reminding comrades of the central importance of the working man, as opposed to a bloke on a horse, to the working man’s paradise.

See previous - this statue and the previous flanks the stairway to the station platforms.

See previous – this statue and the previous flank the stairway to the station platforms

A memorial to the brave comrades who died in defence of the motherland during World War 2, reminding comrades of her he sacrifices sometimes necessary to demonstrate love of one's fellow comrades.

A memorial to the brave comrades who died in defence of the motherland during World War 2, reminding comrades of the sacrifices sometimes necessary to demonstrate love of one’s fellow comrades.

What it was all for. A family of contented comrades, grateful for the sacrifices of their comrades and urging eternal vigilance against counter-revolutionaries.

What it was all for. Contented comrades are grateful for the sacrifices of their comrades and urge eternal vigilance against counter-revolutionaries.

Elsewhere the city of Plzen revealed the benefits of its unswerving loyalty to the Party, particularly in the simple yet comfortable housing provided for loyal comrades, as opposed to the ostentatious mansions built by earlier generations of bourgeois capitalists on the backs of the proletariat.

Housing built for comrade workers providing opportunity for communal activity.

Housing built for comrade workers providing opportunity for communal activity.

Entrance to the Skoda factory where 40,000 loyal comrades toiled daily in the service of their fellow citizens and the Great Proletarian Democratic Republic of Czechoslovakia.

Entrance to the Skoda factory where 40,000 loyal comrades toiled daily in the service of their fellow citizens and the Great Proletarian Democratic Republic of Czechoslovakia.

Housing provided for loyal comrade workers employed at the adjacent Skoda factory.

Housing provided for loyal comrade workers employed at the adjacent Skoda factory.

The capturing of these photographs aroused the suspicions of both my travelling companions and local authorities and I was forced to make arrangements to leave the Czech Republic. Fortunately I was able to contact a double agent employed in the state owned railway company and secured a passage on a train leaving shortly afterwards for Germany. The final image displayed here reveals one of the disguises I employed and one of the uncomfortable positions I was required to adopt to facilitate the surveillance required for this report. It may be of assistance to future agents and is included for training purposes only.

You might find it difficult to identify which is your agent and  which is a stone statue.

You might find it difficult to identify which is your agent and which is the stone statue. The half open window might help.

Fourth Report – Dateline: 12 July. Place: Berlin

I disembarked in Berlin at 17.36 hrs on 11 July and made immediate contact with my handler. He reported to me that evidence of Soviet Man had been reported in a village a few kilometres north of the city. This village, known as Sachsenhausen, was the site of a Nazi concentration camp between 1936 and 1945, and subsequently a Soviet camp and prison until 1954. In 1961 it was reopened as a memorial to those who had died at the hands of the previous German fascist regime. I proceeded to Sachsenhausen the following morning disguised as a simple tourist taking his son to an historic site and was able to secure the following photographs.

Soviet era memorial. Note that the liberating Russian comrade seems no better fed than the victims of the camp he is liberating showing that the heroic proletarian inmates of her he camp triumphed over their oppressors.

Soviet era memorial. Note that the liberating Russian comrade seems no better fed than the victims of the camp he is liberating showing that the heroic proletarian inmates of  the camp triumphed over their oppressors.

Camp watch tower, or Soviet era missile silo?

Camp watch tower, or Soviet era missile silo?

Evidence of Communist political activity.

Evidence of Communist political activity.

Soviet era memorial to the victims of the death camp at Sachsenhausen.

Soviet era memorial to the victims of the death camp at Sachsenhausen. Not one, but two Soviet Men.

By now my cover was almost blown. I had seen too much and was even uncertain as to who my real enemies were. After hours of interrogation and debriefing I was given the green light to leave Germany and provided with appropriate travel documents. I could not get out of there fast enough but still had to wait a couple of days.

Due to the security risks involved it is uncertain whether I will be able to make any further contact, let alone reports. Indeed, I fear that I am at serious risk of being terminated before being able to leave the country. To improve my security I have included a photograph of my handler making contact with other agents – but whose agents? I believe he may be a double agent operating under the code name DOTA Warrior. If anything happens to me this person’s computer files should be confiscated and he himself interrogated. He should be considered dangerous.

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Exclusive! Old codger returns to Plzen

Returnee accompanied by hooligan minders

9 July 2014 – from our own correspondent

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An elderly man, who claims to be the son of the late Czech industrialist, Oskar S., has been seen in Plzen this week. He is thought to be the same man who recently tried to sell a bogus apartment in Prague’s Wenceslas Square to some unsuspecting Australian tourists. On Monday this week he turned up at Klatovska Tr. 19, the prewar offices of Oskar S’s well-known wire and gramophone needle making business. He claimed that an upstairs flat with its intact 1930s timber fixtures and furniture, and marble wall panelling belonged to his uncle, Hugo S. The man has been tentatively identified as Vilous S., now known to be living in Australia under the name Will S. (Our legal department has advised that his full identity cannot be revealed.)

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When the party which had met at Klatovska Tr. 19 attempted to leave and re-convene at the former S. house at Klatovska Tr. 110, the man followed it with his band of thugs and gatecrashed a press conference organised by the Gallery of West Bohemia to announce the creation of a house museum and education facility dedicated to Plzen’s rich architectural history at the site.

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He proceeded to lead a large gathering around the house, claiming that he could tell stories about every room he passed through. These included the bedrooms used by Jana and Oskar S., another bedroom belonging to a brother, Stefan, and yet another he claimed to have shared with a second brother, Ulrich. Most participants considered the stories too outlandish to be possibly true.

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In an exclusive interview following the press conference Mr S’s daughter and grandson announced that they felt Czech to the core and that they intended to make a claim on the Czech state for restitution of property confiscated by the German government in 1939. Bystanders were appalled at the aggressive attitude displayed by the pair who, it was noted, could barely even say ahoy without an unpleasant Antipodean drawl. Czech authorities have refused to comment on their claims except to release an official statement observing that such claims by foreigners with at best a tentative link to the Czech Republic have been increasing in recent times.

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STOP PRESS Since this story was filed, Vilous S. is reported to have visited a factory established by Oskar S. near Plzen in the early twentieth century. Again he was accompanied by his mob of thuggish minders who browbeat the factory’s current owner into providing a guided tour of the facility. S’s most feared hitman can be seen standing to the left of the factory owner who is dressed in formal yellow shirt and shorts. The look of intimidation on his face is unmistakeable.

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As the factory manufactures precision tooled pumps and other components used in, among other sites, nuclear energy plants, Czech authorities are concerned that the so-called visit may in fact have been made by a cell of an international industrial espionage ring. There are also fears that the factory may be subject to a hostile takeover bid by parties this mob of intimidators represents. Top secret photos surreptitiously taken by the ‘S’ group have been retrieved and, again in an exclusive, can be revealed here for the first time.

Former Semler industrial complex

Former Semler industrial complex

Vilous Semler refuses to hear pleas of current factory owner

Vilous S. refuses to hear pleas of current factory owner

Interior shot of factory building

Interior shot of factory building revealing revolutionary low energy lighting system

Previously unseen image of intra factory transportation system

Previously unseen image of the integrated intra factory transportation system, considered to be a global breakthrough

Factory choirs are encouraged to facilitate work team cohesion

Factory choirs facilitate work team cohesion and improve productivity

Factory chimney with state of the art pollution control mechanisms

Factory chimney with state of the art pollution control mechanisms

Final insult

Latest reports reveal that this party of impostors (it has been confirmed that Vilous S. has no connection with the illustrious Plzen firm of S. Enterprises) later insulted one of Plzen’s finest chefs when its ringleader refused to eat a specially prepared local delicacy, Old Czech Potato Pancakes, at an unnamed restaurant close to the city centre yesterday evening. He claimed that they were not like his mother used to make and sent the dish back to the kitchen twice. The chef is reported to have collapsed on the spot. Medical authorities reveal that he was taken to hospital for observation and is expected to make a full recovery. Complaints about such gratuitous behaviour by guests to our country have been made outside the Australian embassy by a group of banner-waving protestors.

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It can also be revealed that the ringleader and his consort have now left Plzen and will not further trouble our citizens. Some of his minders remain in the city, however, and should be approached with caution.

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Two wheels in Prague

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Prague is beautiful. But it is also big. Too big to comfortably walk around and see everything there is to see. Even if that were possible. Our quandary, then, was how to get around this city and enjoy its offerings. We were not the only ones with this question in our minds. One young woman found Prague just too exhausting and took a midday nap on the parapets of the medieval Charles bridge. She sure wouldn’t want to roll over! Meanwhile, David Cerny’s Miminka crawled around with some panache, but we thought this too slow for our purposes. Not to mention being hard on our ageing knees.

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One pair of tourists sought divine inspiration in the city’s old town square. Were they consulting a roadmap to heaven or just to the castle? Other folk, who seemed to be of a similar persuasion, teleported themselves across the Charles Bridge with state-of-the-art helicopter hats. These are all the rage in Prague, especially around the city’s many churches.

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Our feet, however, are more firmly planted close to the ground so the helicopter option was unavailable to us. As you all know we are rather partial to two wheels, and loyal readers will have noticed that we have employed them several times already on our European Grand Tour. So would bicycles answer our need? We had already observed that, unlike in other European cities, bikes are pretty thin on the ground in Prague. It could be the cobbled pavements in the old town, but more likely, we thought, the narrow streets and heavy traffic.

Still, we were willing to give it a go. We weren’t alone. One man already had a bike but tried to beam up another while being observed by a curious onlooker. Another had a rather novel, if inefficient, approach to cycling.

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Eventually, we thought we had struck gold when we came across a bike which had clearly been the inspiration for Vlado Milunic and Frank Gehry’s Dancing House. But then we thought it best to leave it in situ for other visitors to enjoy the connection. We are still pondering the meaning of the banner hanging off the Dancing House – I think it reveals a particularly Czech way of thinking that only a deep study of Milan Kundera can make clear.

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So, still we were left with a problem. How to get around? Then, inspired by hours of watching cricket on TV, we lit on the answer. Segways, of course! We didn’t need to carry drinks out to sweaty sportsmen, but still they seemed to be just the thing so we soon found ourselves on a three hour Segway tour through the mean streets of Prague.

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Under the care of our knowledgeable and enthusiastic young guide, Vasek, we steered our new steeds throughout old Prague. En route we were accosted by an old Czech carpetbagger who tried to sell us his grandmother’s apartment in Wenceslas Square. He claimed it was the one with the balconies. As if …

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On Segways, Prague’s hills didn’t worry us again and we zipped in and out of the crowded tourist streets with a devil-may-care toss of our (helmeted) heads. Getting hungry we soon found a man with a fish, but decided to look elsewhere. Vasek suggested trdelnik, a traditional Slovakian sweet bread which had found its way to the Czech Republic, so we decided give it a go. Some of the party addressed their trdelnik with circumspection while others got stuck straight in.

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Suitably refuelled we Segwayed across bridges with views to the old city, then zoomed up hills to the castle where we discovered that cricket has its antecedents in the ancient Czech sport of bashing heads with a bat. Even back then coaches advised batsmen (it was a purely male sport in medieval Prague) to keep their heads down and eyes on the ball.

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Finally we saw Zdenek Holzel, Jan Kereland and Oldbram Zoubek’s powerful memorial to the victims of Czech communism between 1948 and 1989, before heading back to the hotel and a well deserved rest. Even on Segways touring Prague can be tiring.

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Defence of the Ancients – a day in Frankfurt

No, this post is not about Oscar rehashing his Aikido skills to save Helen and I from some demonic German mugger. That is very unkind of you to think that way and you clearly know nothing about current major sporting events. Can you guess what I’m referring to? A hint – think a major current event which has been taking place in football stadiums? Wrong! You are eight years out. The World Cup was held in Germany (with games in Frankfurt) in 2006. This year it’s in Brazil.

The event in question is much more significant. ESL One, the DOTA 2 tournament held in Frankfurt on the weekend of June 28-29. Yes, you guessed it, Oscar and I attended the biggest sporting event in the European calendar. Well, the biggest event if you are a DOTA 2 player. And what is DOTA 2? One of the world’s most popular computer strategy games. Think chess with a much larger board and with many more pieces which are constantly moving around and in which you can’t see your opponents’ pieces unless they are in your immediate field of view. This tournament featured some of the world’s top players – 8 teams of five players each vying over two days for more than $US200,000 in prize money at Frankfurt’s main football stadium which holds more than 50,000 spectators.

This was a big day for Oscar and I. It began at 6.30 with us leaping onto bikes to ride to the local bahnhof  and catch an early train from Baden in Switzerland. Yes, Oscar managed to get out of bed before 11.00am! Four and a half hours later we alighted at Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof and made our way to the Commerzbank Arena for the start of proceedings.

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I think that I can safely say that of all the people at the stadium I had more grey hairs than anyone else. Fewer tattoos than many and fewer piercings. Not that the gaming crowd comes anywhere near World Cup football players when it comes to tattoos and unusual hairdos. Still, with Oscar by my side to hold my hand and explain the intricacies and complexities of the game I only felt twice as old as most of the crowd.

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imageA kill! A veritable kill! And nano-seconds later the crowd went wild. The day had everything. Exciting computer gaming with enthusiastic support from the crowd, a trade show with everything you need to be a top DOTA 2 player available, the opportunity to play the latest computer games, to dress up as your favourite Hero or to try out the best computer chairs in the business. And the opportunity to buy a tee shirt featuring your favourite DOTA Hero.

In Oscar’s case this was Kunkka the Admiral, a piratical figure with a big sword. Of course, you will realise that I am showing my ignorance here. Most of my readers will know that Kunkka is not just an ordinary admiral. And he doesn’t just carry a big sword. He is a versatile melee Strength Hero with powerful area-of-effect spells. And that sword has long reaction time nuke powers. What more could you want when you are up against Earthshaker, Wraith King, Lifestealer, Spirit Breaker, Bristleback or Beastmaster and their ilk?

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Having my own powers (nuke and otherwise) drained after nearly three hours of constant DOTA battle I took a time-out in the middle of the afternoon to see what other people in Frankfurt were up to. Frankfurters (and others) were out in force enjoying the cloud and occasional drizzle along the River Main. A spot of mass yoga blew away the week’s cobwebs for many while those with nothing else to do participated in the ancient European art of having their padlock engraved with declarations of eternal love and fixing it to the appointed bridge. Strange people these Europeans! What does this signify? That your heart is now locked up? Any thoughts or hints would be most welcome.

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Of course being Germany, there were colourful bits of the town as well, even though much of it got destroyed during World War 2. This included the usual guardians watching over my every move from street corners. The guardians should really have been in the Dom where you couldn’t move for fear of getting in the way of someone’s photo.

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Now the whole point of this exercise was to make the maximum use of our Eurail Passes. A return trip to Frankfurt for the day gained us maximum value – more than EUR250 worth, as long as we got back to Baden by midnight. Therein lies another story which I won’t bore you with here. Suffice to say, once again the German railway showed itself to be unreliable. Whatever happened to German efficiency? A late train meant that we missed our connection at Karlsruhe, and so our next connection at Basel. Result, the train turned into a pumpkin at midnight and to restore it to train status we had to pay up for a ticket to Baden – cue gnashing of teeth here. It did give me the opportunity to take arty photos of the Karlsruhe railway station at night, and Oscar the opportunity to hunt down a few zzzzzz’s before the joy of cycling back home in light drizzle at 1.15am.

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For the record, Oscar’s DOTA 2 team, Invictus Gaming (iG) from China, won the event’s grand final, although by then we were safely tucked up back in Baden.

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A B C – A Birthday in Colmar

I am sorry to report that there have been complaints made about this blog and its subject matter. Boring, it has been said. Nothing but boring old mountains, wildflowers, statues and mythical creatures. Where is the real stuff of travel? What is the real stuff of travel you ask?

Food, it seems. The chocolate breasts were considered OK even if we didn’t eat them. Better, clearly, if we had.

Well, here we go in an attempt to at least partly address those complaints. And what better place to do so than in France? La belle France. The France of epicures and gourmands. Which, of course, is exactly what we are. And what better time to provide succour for our epicurean tastes than a birthday? Oscar’s birthday, his 15th birthday.

So it was with some trepidation that on the morning on June 23 we cycled to Basel railway station to catch a train to Colmar, a medieval town in Alsace. A wine town favoured by the likes of Voltaire and Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, the sculptor of the Statue of Liberty. Why were we riding scared? Well, Oscar had just turned 15. Would he still be eligible for a child’s ticket in the eyes of French railway officials or would we have to cough up a full adult fare? Yes, it seemed, we were off the hook and 45 minutes later (and just 47 Swiss francs poorer) we alighted at Colmar station ready for a birthday lunch.

Eschewing the grand hotel restaurants in the square Helen found a small cafe in a side alley where we sat down to dine in our best travel clobber. Oscar and I chose the fixed price menu which offered Quiche Lorraine (almost local, Lorraine is the next province to Alsace) with salade variee followed by dessert of tarte de pommes for moi and glace for Oscar. Helen chose a salade variee and, eyes bulging at my tarte (in the most epicurean manner, of course), also plumped for her own. All washed down by Alsace’s finest Coca, Sirop de Limon and Eau Minerale (avec gas).

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Thus fortified, we determined to faire une promenade around the town and see what we could find. We found lots of streets of very colourful half timbered houses, thronging with tourists. We found the house in which Voltaire sojourned for a year or two a long time ago, a school named after Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the Maison des Tetes which was distinguished by numerous heads on its facade.

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Walking for an hour or two on cobbles is tiring work, so Oscar and I felt the need for refreshments and sought out a small snack that would satisfy our requirements. Although tempted, we decided not to disrupt the carefully constructed and colour co-ordinated tower of macarons and retired to a nearby salle de glace to see what it had on offer.

image                imageDespite the rather limited selection available we decided that we would have to make do, and, appearances to the contrary, were not entirely displeased with our selections.

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Sleeping well that night we mounted our bicycles on the morn and headed towards the hills for the medieval wine market village of Eguisheim. Another very colourful and quaint little town set amongst the vineyards.

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An eight kilometre ride before lunch is enough to whet the appetite so our thoughts again turned to food. Although we thought poultry might do, the local storks looked to be a bit hard to get at, even with the prospect of fresh locally grown corn as an accompaniment (being environmentally and culturally sensitive travellers we do prefer to eat local fare where possible).

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Thus thwarted in our desires we remounted our bikes and made for nearby Ste. Croix-en-Plaine, which, as you might have guessed if your French is up to the task, is situated on the plain; this being the plain of the River Rhine. Here we found a typical little provincial French cafe serving traditional Alsatian cuisine, and so selected the plat du jour, in this case doner kebabs, washed down by the local drop (Coca, Sprite et Eau Minerale avec plus gas).

imageOur stomachs now satisfied we made for the nearby World Heritage listed fortified town of Neuf-Brisach. Having successfully breached the battlements after a frontal assault on the main gates we felt the need to fortify ourselves at the local patisserie.

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I’m sure you are all beginning to realise what an arduous business cycling in France is. Fortunately the afternoon brought us a lazy 26 kilometre cycle through fields of wheat and corn with just a single boulangerie to detain us en route before we were able to find (in the very French sounding village of Bantzenheim) a small hotel in which to rest our weary thighs and bottoms. There the local youth kindly provided entertainment for several hours with their trail bike riding on the rue outside. Within, the local fly population congregated to keep us company throughout the night.

But, of course, again a new day dawned with us anticipating just what further epicurean delights it might bring. More bike paths through the fields and even an 11th century abbey or two before 11 o’clock presented itself and we were in desperate need of refuelling. Using my best high school French I ascertained that a patisserie was lurking just around the corner, but alas, we found it with shutters down and door closed. Definitely fermee. Fortunately a hotel with a Jardin d’Ete was across the street. After much negotiation with a reluctant maître d’hôtel we secured a table in the garden and, after further reluctance, some coffee, tea and eventually apricot tart with meringue, cream, raspberry sorbet and pineapple. Just what the stomachs ordered and certainly enough to cycle down the canal tow path back to the order of Swiss Basel and a final evening with Susann and Dieter before our next stop in nearby Baden.

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A wild(flower) time in the Swiss Alps

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After nearly a week scaling lofty peaks in the Swiss Alps it is time to reflect on the wild(flower) times we had in the Binntal and the mountains around Gstaad. What a place these mountains are, and what a time of year to be there with a profusion of flowers all around us. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your point of view) we didn’t come across any basilisks although we did find this rather handsome creature high above the village of Binn. Maybe his job is to frighten the basilisks away! He didn’t scare us.image

More often, however, we found ourselves traipsing through fields of flowers, yellows, whites, deep blues and purples, and reds.image

Until we came across this grass frog, lurking in a freezing lake at over 2200 metres above sea level. What, you might ask, is a grass frog doing half-submerged in an ice-covered pond?image

It was probably looking for this. A nice juicy fly enjoying the beauty of this round-headed rampion and showing a keen interest in an ant. Clearly the fly’s interests extended beyond botany and into entomology. As for the frog, I think it was confining itself to the latter.image

I have to confess to some poetic licence here – if the frog could actually see this fly it must have had extraordinary eyesight, as it was 3 or 4 kilometres away and 700 metres lower in altitude. In reality, it was trying to make itself inconspicuous after some large two-legged primates happened to pass rather too close for comfort. So, you see, not only does this blog provide you with an educational experience concerning Swiss alpine flora and fauna, it also offers an instructive tale in the construction of travel writings and suggests to you, dear reader, that perhaps you shouldn’t believe everything you read. Now, after that post-modern intervention, I shall continue on with the story, make of  it what you will.

I know that you are probably starting to get a bit anxious, and even perhaps a little cheesed off. This post was advertised to be about alpine wildflowers and so far there have just been two photos of them, one with blurry yellow dots, and one with more interest shown in insects than petals. Fear not, soon you will be begging for mercy and asking for images of snowy peaks, cows with bells or even tiny white-washed chapels set in amongst small villages of ancient wooden houses and animal sheds. So where do we start in our botanical studies? Let’s begin with red, so that you can admire a drooping rose and an alpenrose, the latter being one of the rhododendron family. For those gluttons for punishment who want all the gory details, just click or tap on the image and it will enlarge for you.

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Then there were the pink and purple, and lots of them.

image                                imageHere you can find a primrose, which one I don’t know, and a honey clover. Suck on the petals and sweet drinks will be yours.

image                          imageAnd here a violet and an orchid, again the precise species unable to be identified by your correspondent. Then there were the blues…

image                           imageThese are both forms of gentian, the second being a trumpet gentian.

Finally, a couple of white and yellow flowers, a Burnet rose and a geum.image          image

Of course there were lots lots more, but you can only closely examine so many flowers on one walk or in one post. Then you need to sit down, have lunch, enjoy the view, pose for photos and walk home.image

image(Note the hierarchy of heights, exacerbated by steeply sloped ground.)

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A final note. Apparently in its wisdom, WordPress failed to notify my loyal readers of my words of wisdom on the battlefields and museums of Flanders. More due my technical ineptitude than their malfunction. If that post is one you have been holding your breath waiting for, you can breathe again and scroll down the posts until you find I died in hell (They called it Passchendaele).

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The I hope you don’t get sick of basilisks in Basel blogpost

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Yes, you guessed it, we are back to B’s again. Do Europeans have any other letter of importance? With relief I wandered around the old city of Basel yesterday and found lots of dragons. ‘D’, I thought, at last something other than a ‘B’. But no, back with our friends Susann and Dieter, I was reliably informed that these were not dragons, but basilisks. I guess the chook-like head gives it away. Those of you who remember your Hogwarts history will know that basilisks are not friendly creatures. Just ask Moaning Myrtle. Despite this, in Basel they are the city’s heraldic animal and turn up in all sorts of places. But they can be dangerous so people all over town keep a sharp eye out for them … image

Sometimes you find them preening themselves on the tops of posts …image

The Rathaus seems to be a particular hotspot. There they … imagelurk in dark corners …

imagehide above doorways …

imageand even sit on blokes’ helmets. Do you think he knew?

Elsewhere, basilisks try to camouflage themselves as fountains …image               image

As an aside not everyone likes being immortalised as a fountain. Or maybe he can see a basilisk coming …image

Some get quite a look in their eye about it.image

Despite their obvious love of basilisks, not all natives of Basel are friendly towards them. One poor creature wanting to have a look at the cathedral came to a particularly sticky end,image

while tennis great, Roger Federer, has begun a modern crusade of extermination. I think that the tennis ball must just be to remind himself of his glory days.image

Neptune, too, decided to have a crack at basilisks but got a fish instead.image

As you wander the streets of Basel you can see the efforts people go to to avoid these loved yet maligned creatures. In the best traditions of all good post offices, however, the post must get through. In his left hand, the postie is carrying a special basilisk detecting device, now available on eBay. image

After a long and hot day of basilisk hunting, however, really the best thing you can do is have a good lie down and think about the walk into the Swiss Alps coming up. I wonder if there will be any basilisks there?image

 

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I died in hell (They called it Passchendaele)

It is hard to visualise Siegfried Sassoon’s words when cycling around West Flanders today. A small village, Passchendaele lies in a sea of rolling green fields with potatoes, corn and wheat growing and some cows grazing. Hard to see in this modern bucolic scene the photographs and stories of a destroyed landscape bathing in mud in which men sank and drowned, a nightmare reverberating to a cacophony of shells and screams, with deadly gas wafting over and men shooting long tongues of flame when moving between the lines. We cycle the narrow farm lanes wondering where the next war cemetery is, thinking about a drink or better still, lunch and looking for shade on these hot days. The horrors and trenches of World War 1 seem very far away.

ImageHelen Pollock’s Between the Memory and the Silence Falls the Shadow at the Memorial Museum Passchendaele at Zonnebecke. In Sassooon’s poem, Memorial Tablet, a young man dies at Passchendaele by slipping off the duckboards and drowning in the mud.

We have covered a fair bit of country east and south of Ieper, areas which were on the front line from 1914-1918. A gently rolling and green landscape that was turned into a sea of mud. Frank Hurley’s famous image of five diggers walking along duckboards through a landscape of Armageddon was taken just a few hundred metres from our accommodation here. We have been to many museums, too many for Oscar. These have varied from outstanding to appalling and there is certainly an argument sometimes heard that the Belgians are cashing in too much on battleground tourism, but after what the country went through in those years, who can blame them. Ieper, a bit like Hiroshima, styles itself as a city of peace, and certainly much of the interpretation is directed that way. The message being presented by the city is that all participants of war are its victims, soldiers from all sides and civilians alike.

imageThe In Flanders Fields museum in Ieper, the region’s major museum, is located in the rebuilt 13th century Cloth Hall. The Cloth Hall was destroyed during the war, as was all of Ieper – Churchill suggested leaving it a ruin as a monument to the futility of the war. The museum is particularly strong on presenting a balanced interpretation of the war, refusing to demonise the Germans, despite their being the invaders and occupiers of Belgium. It uses very powerful video and interpretive techniques, being very explicit in its depiction of the brutality and horrors so that 2-3 hours in the museum pass very quickly. It has a very strong anti-war message and would have to be one of the best museums I have visited.

imageOther museums, such as Zonnebecke’s Memorial Museum Passchendaele, provide recreated trenches and dugouts which provide powerful experiences, but somehow I find displaying a mass of shells in a way that recasts them as aesthetic objects of beauty a little disturbing. It seems to fetishise objects of death. Nonetheless, it too has a strong anti-war message.

image    image    A major feature of the landscape is the sheer number of war cemeteries. These are all around, from the huge such as Tyne Cot with 12,000 burials, to the small ones in farmers’ fields or on roadsides, such as Somers Farm where an approaching storm reminds that Belgium is a wet place and this had a major impact on the experiences of soldiers. The large cemeteries are moving in their evocation of mass death. The small ones in their ubiquity and the understanding they provide that death was everywhere. The cemeteries are kept in immaculate condition by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, a huge undertaking with the number of cemeteries in Belgium and France.

imageFlanders poppies at the Plugstreet 14-18 Experience, opened at Ploegsteert in November 2013.

So after four days touring the battlefields on Flanders we understand a little bit more about what happened here, and even gained an inkling of the experiences of the combatants. But, as I wrote at the beginning, it is really impossible to conceive of this place as it was almost a hundred years ago, with towns and villages destroyed, farms laid waste and the civilian population forced to flee hundreds of kilometres. Hopefully we will never find out.

 

Squire nagged and bullied till I went to fight

(Under Lord Derby’s scheme), I died in hell

(They called it Passchendaele.) My wound was slight,

And I was hobbling back; and then a shell

Burst slick upon the duckboards: so I fell

Into the bottomless mud, and lost the light.

 

At sermon-time, while the Squire is in his pew,

He gives my gilded name a thoughtful stare;

for, though low down on the list, I’m there;

‘In proud and glorious memory’ … that’s my due.

Two bleeding years I fought in France, for Squire:

I suffered anguish that he’s never guessed.

Once I came home on leave: and then went west …

What greater glory could a man desire?

Siegfried Sassoon, 1918

 

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Offensive wind farms and other things

Have you heard the one about the politician who thinks wind farms are offensive? And solar panels too, most likely. Perhaps even public transport. Three guesses as to who it is and where he/she is from. No, not from Europe. Keep thinking about it and see if you can come up with an answer by the time you’ve finished reading this post.

In our travels here we’ve seen numerous wind farms, some large with dozens of turbines like the dreaded L— G—– wind farm that our friend in a high place loathes with a passion. Others quite small, even down to just one or two turbines. This one, photographed from the belfry (that’s right, another belfry and more steps) of the Cloth Hall in Ieper, has just nine turbines and seems to be quite popular here.

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Even worse, solar panels are also popular. A huge number of houses sport vast arrays of solar panels on their roofs. The owners of our B&B here near Ieper recently added twenty-eight to their roof. Obviously the Europeans haven’t heard that climate change is crap yet. More and more, it seems, are going up all the time.

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Public transport is also a winner. Fast trains everywhere and lots of them. So fast you have to hang on to the back of your seat to counter the G forces. Check out the speed. As we travelled in first class with our Eurail tickets the conductors even brought around little chocolates for us! Sounds like an Age of Entitlement to me.

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Did I mention bicycles? Bikes are ubiquitous in all the towns and cities that we have visited. We’ve travelled round a bit on two wheels ourselves, on borrowed bikes so not really set up for our sizes, but very convenient nonetheless. Here in Flanders there’s an amazing network of small country roads and lanes with hardly a car in sight, making travelling around between war cemeteries and museums a real joy.

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So there you are, don’t despair completely. There is somewhere in the world that can think sensibly about these things without the sky falling in.

Have you guessed the name of the politician yet? It’s too painful to tell you, so you’ll just have to work it out for yourself. But you know already, don’t you?

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