November 27, 2018

Banner

Slovakia had already stunned us with it’s quiet alpine towns and its challenging mountain trails, but it had more in store for us to enjoy before we’d head back home.

Here’s what happened next.

++++

We woke early, showered, tidied up, and said goodbye to our glammed up, luxurious, definitely haunted apartment complex and walked down to the train station. Our backpacks, now feeling more like a part of us than not, sat comfortably against our backs, the sun already rising in the bright blue sky. We would miss this place but we were excited to see what came next.

We would be heading first to a city called Poprad, then swap trains onto a village called Vydrník. First though, our train had to arrive on time as our crossover only allowed minutes in between this change.

It did not.

The plan had been that our new hosts would pick us up at Vydrník station at a specific time and then drive us over to the accommodation as it was a little way out from the station. However with our train delayed and our transfer uncertain we had to tell our hosts that we weren’t sure now when we would be arriving and that we’d figure out our own way from the station to the accommodation. With that done the train pulled up. We piled on, found our seats, and settled in for the short trip to Poprad. In Poprad we ran out of the train, hoping against hope that our original train would still be at its platform. Seeing a platform that advertised the same departure time as our train we hoped for the best and ran up the steps to see the train waiting. We asked the conductor if it was heading to Vydrník, it was, so we rushed on board. The train began to move as we fell into our seats. Turns out we would make it at the original time after all…except now we had no ride. We’d figure it out. First though we watched autumn pass by our windows. Yellows and orange and red, and some remaining green filled the view with it’s golden splendor. The train trundled along and I could barely focus on my book due to this gorgeous countryside.

We pulled into Vydrník and the lady Holly and I jumped out to find that, sure enough, our message had been received and no car waited for us. Unfortunately, not much else did either. Not only was Vydrník a speck of a village, it was also centered further afield than the station and in the opposite direction from our own village, Hrabušice. We started walking, following a large two lane road lined with apple trees loaded with fruit, the ground likewise littered with it’s fallen and forgotten bounty. Our backpacks, which had felt so comfortable and familiar that morning began to drag against our shoulders as the dirt crunched beneath our feet. The sun was now well up, warm but not hot. We scanned the hilly landscape, still able to see the mountains we had traversed days earlier on the horizon. It was, all told, a nice walk. We made it into Hrabušice, pointing out the small shops and restaurants we would hopefully visit during our time here, then past towards our accommodation. We rang the doorbell. A young woman greeted us, excited by the prospect of meeting Australians; conveying this excitement in good but limited english while telling us how far we must have come. Her excitement was a joy and soon infected us, overriding our own tiredness. The accommodation was simple compared to the penthouse we had left that morning, but comfortable and welcome.

Hrabušice is located on the outskirts of the Slovak Paradise National Park, our reason for being there. It is also, as we were to learn, small, old-fashioned, and quaint. We walked its entirety within an hour, circling around the outskirts of the town and through it’s housed streets, spotting many cute dogs, and one sheep, in the front yards. While it did have the aforementioned shops and restaurants, they seemed to come from a time in the not so distant past. The first shop we went to was tiny, it’s shelves full of basic stock, all visible from behind a rope. This shop was like those from before my time, where you’d point out to the proprietor your list of items and they would collect and bag them for you. Quaint? Yes. Convenient? Less so. Mostly thanks to the language barrier. Our Slovak was, and unfortunately remains, non-existent, so when the shop lady asked us what we wanted we weren’t one hundred percent sure what she was asking, nor knew how to answer. Luckily, through a lot of pointing and miming, we were able to purchase what we needed and for a remarkably cheap price. The restaurants were pleasantly more english friendly, usually even having english menus, and full of rich, meaty, delicious food, and cold frothy beers. It’s smalltown-ness and isolation was a quiet pleasure, knowing soon that we would be in its opposite, back home in a city where our time and attention would be demanded from many sources. I think of it’s paddocked outskirts and star filled sky now and wish I could go back, just for an instant, and breath in its fresh country air.

While Hrabušice was lovely, the Slovak Paradise National Park was where the real treasure lay. The entrance to the park was located just a few kilometers from where we were staying, so the next morning we packed a lunch and headed out into the foggy air. The road took us past yet more apple trees and paddocks that contained, surprisingly, Highland cows. We had seen these beautiful rust coloured beasts first in Scotland, months ago, and, Holly especially, had fallen in love with them. It was somehow right that we were seeing them now, at the end of our trip, making our adventure seem that it had come full circle. We feed them some of the fallen apples, causing one to follow us for quite a way, before we turned off and headed toward the park.

In summer the park is busy, with an entrance fee and a couple of small streets full of bars and souvenir shops that you must traverse before heading into the wilds. But this was autumn, and so, with visitor numbers drastically lower, the streets were empty, as was the entrance booth. We walked through the deserted area, walked along the tree line, through grass thick and wet with morning dew, and into the park.

One thing you should know about the Slovak Paradise National Park is that it is full of gorges, and while other countries may situate its walks above these ridges in the landscape, Slovakia thought the best views were from inside them. They were not wrong. But, you may be saying, wouldn’t the gorges be full of water from time to time? And you, now, would not be wrong. Which is why these gorges are decked out with wooden bridges, ladders, winding steps built into the rock face, and chains to help you traverse the rocky water way.

It was amazing. It felt like a giant adventure park, like we had been transported inside a Crash Bandicoot game, following a path that required us to step, jump, and climb, to make our way to the finish line. Add to this the ridiculous beauty of the landscape, the incredible autumn colours, and the soft musical rainfall of the falling leaves, and you have one of the greatest days I have ever lived.

I could go into more detail, describing the throbbing wellspring of joy in my chest as we passed through that well named paradise, taking photos at almost every step. Instead I think it’s easier to just show you those photos as they can say more than I ever could.

We spent more days in this idyllic little part of the globe, went on more walks, had more funny little experiences, found more animals to pat. We continued on, through Košice and Budapest, and made our way back to Vienna, and then to Melbourne. Home.

Part of me wants to tell you all about it, in unnecessary, potentially painful, detail, mostly in an attempt to relive the experience. But, I’m learning, that’s just not possible. One, because I am a flawed beast with a not so picture perfect memory, and two, because experiences are only ever once in a lifetime, and can never be repeated. The river of time flows on and we can never walk through it at the same point twice. The closest we can come is this, stories and memories and photos.

Which is plenty.

And the beauty of it all is that once those experiences have been lived, their ours forever. I may go back to my workaday job, get pulled down into routine, look at my phone too much and get stuck in traffic, but the fact that I have done these things and visited those places still remains. I will even die one day, and all those stories and memories and photos will undoubtedly be lost to time, but they still happened. They will always have happened. And that gives me solace, because I will be lost to time one day too, but I will always have existed.

As will these words.

Thanks for reading them.

Talk soon,

Damian

IMG_20181018_115122

Advertisements

November 8, 2018

 

Banner

Holly and I have returned home. I am currently sitting on our familiar couch in our unchanged lounge room, eating an apple and writing this post. It is six thirty in the morning before my first day back at work. But rather than talk about that I’d like to talk about Slovakia and the final leg of our trip. A leg filled with incredible natural beauty, increasingly more rest days, and a journey over a mountain.

Let’s begin.

++++

While most of our travels had been meticulously researched, planned, and booked many months ago by the Lady Holly, the final leg was not. The final leg was going to be spontaneous, we would be spontaneous, we knew we would because we had pencilled it in to our diaries. Because that’s how spontaneity works, you plan it. The original idea was that close to the date we would go on skyscanner, look at the cheapest flights out of Vienna, book one, then leave the next day. Except, as you may have gathered, we’re not all that good at spontaneity and so during our time in Germany we cracked and booked some things. I’m glad we did.

What we booked was a number of trains leaving from Vienna, making their way through Slovakia, before getting a bus down to Budapest in Hungary. From the start we knew we liked Slovakia, mostly because their train network was so incredibly cheap we even decided to bump ourselves up to first class, which cost a dollar or so more. We also booked in our accomodation for this leg, granting ourselves seven days at our first location; the longest time we would have spent anywhere for the last couple of months. It was exciting, mostly because we didn’t really know what to expect. We knew we wanted to see more mountains, and that we wanted to rest more–as our months of being on the move were starting to wear us down–and Slovakia seemed to hit both of those notes; being both mountainous and quieter than some places. But that was it. Beyond that it was a mystery. One that would prove to have many treasures hidden within it.

Our first stop was Štrba, located at the base of the Upper Tatra mountains. Our accomodation wasn’t in Štrba proper, but a smaller village a short distance away called Tatranská Štrba. To call it sleepy would be appropriate; almost deserted, even more so. Our apartment was in a large complex, with views overlooking the Tatras. Across from it was a hotel which featured a “mini zoo”, with animals ranging from peacocks to goats–with nothing in between, as they just had peacocks and goats. Calling it a zoo might be a bit rich but it was a welcome delight nonetheless. The apartment was excessively affordable, well under budget compared to most of our other stays, and yet was the nicest, most lavish, accommodation we’d had the whole trip. It featured an enormous balcony with exceptional views, a very blinged up kitchen, with purple LED lights under the bench and an incredible coffee machine, two bathrooms, one of which had a large bath and mood lighting, and one of the best beds we’d slept in the whole trip. We played it cool as the host showed us around and explained how everything worked, but then broke into giddy giggles as soon as she waved goodbye. We would have seven days here and the place was paradise. And remember how I said the town was almost deserted? Well that went double for our apartment complex. Despite having four levels of apartments, we didn’t see a single soul the whole time we were there. Not once did we pass someone in the hall or share an elevator ride. Never did we catch anyone entering or leaving their apartment or have to hold the door for someone. We did hear noises though, and occasionally voices. Obviously ghosts, which just made us even more excited to stay there. Back to the town for a second, while it may have been deserted it was also gorgeous. Alpine and lush and rich with autumn colours, blue skies filled with sun shone down on us as we walked it’s quiet streets and took in the impressive natural scenery. And overlooking it all was the Tatras. On that first day we looked up at those mountains, keen to cross their craggy peaks.

Day one was rest day/buy groceries day/get all giddy about our killer accomodation day. Day two was our first journey up towards the mountain. We took a cute little train twenty minutes to its base where another tiny town sat, Štrbské Pleso. This town was larger, but again somewhat deserted, we assume due to it being off peak. While the weather was perfect for walking, the locals, we take it, are more interested in their winter sports, which is when the two towns would really fill up. This was a reconnaissance mission for us as we knew the next day we would get up early and return to do an epic sixteen kilometer walk over the mountain. Which brings us to day three.

The alarm went off at five, we packed bags, made a lunch, and were on the tiny train by six am, and back at the base of the mountain and walking by six thirty. The walk started through a fairytale forest, rocks and staircases of twisting roots lined the path, all shadowed by the centuries old trees reaching up around us. If Hansel and Gretel had skipped on through there it would have been little suprise. As we climbed the terrain changed, the forest making way for grasslands. The sun had yet to break the mountain peaks so we walked in shadow as we made our way up. The landscape began sparser still, grassland changing to rock. We saw a small waterfall leading into the stream we had been following and were surprised to see the track led up beside it. Right up in fact, as chains had been installed for us to climb with. We secured our backpacks and made it to the top of the mountain right as the sun broke free to shine down on us. It was perfect. It also wasn’t the top.

From our new platao we could see we still had much further to go. So on we went. We passed blissful pools of water, stark blue against the mountains grey. And on we went. We traversed over a field of rocks, boulders resting against boulders as far as we could see, the yellow markers revealing a path through them like we were adventurers in a video game. And on we went. We headed up, our legs starting to weary as they took high steps up a rocky staircase on the edge of a cliff face. And on we went. We scrambled over another false top–incredibly high now but not quite at the peak–and found an even larger pool, this one partly iced over and as reflective as a mirror. And on we went. We passed onto more rocks, these ones more uneven, the trail curving and hard to keep a track of. And on we went. Into snow, which hid the path even more, climbing more than walking now as we saw what we thought must be the top, but refused to believe the mountain after all its false promises. And on we went, until we got to a peak, a sharp ridge with an insane incline that we would have to climb over. More chains had been installed, and cold and exhilarated and more than a little tired, we pulled our bodies over the mountain.

Then there was the matter of getting down. The other side of the ridge proved just as steep as the side we had just traversed, but now we were going down, with gravity a little too keen to assist us. Falling was a very real risk, not helped by pebbly rubble beneath our feet. All of this combined caused Holly’s vertigo to kick in and panic to flare. She seized up, teared up, and for a moment thought she wouldn’t be able to do it. I knew she could. I know she can beat most mountains. I took her bag, she took some deep breaths, and with me speaking words of encouragement she took a shaky step down. Then another. And another. Until we were past the worst, and, while still far from flat, were on more solid ground. And on we went.

Our legs were past weary, past tired, and into angry and sore by the time we made it down and across to our end point, the top of the chairlift. Here was situated a beer house, because of course there was, this is Europe, and so we sat and drank and rested our legs.

The day, while tiring, had been one of extreme and rewarding experiences. We had climbed over a mountain and seen various shades of its beauty along the way. It was a day worth doing, worth remembering, and worth writing about.

Next time I’ll tell you what we did next.

++++

Talk soon,

Damian

 

October 19, 2018

IMG_20181001_191637

When last we spoke I was singing the praises of beautiful Mostar, sharing photos of yours truly smiling behind a giant platter of food, and spinning thoughts on war and kindness.

Let’s get back into it, shall we?

++++

We left Mostar by bus. A risky venture after the questionable success of the last one, and a risk we quickly paid for. We were heading back to Split in Croatia for a second night, and I was looking forward to seeing the city’s sun dabbled shore and discovering more of what hid behind it’s white stone foundations. But I would have to wait somewhat, as about half way through our four hour drive, our bus inexplicably pulled over onto the side of the road, where it would stay for the next two hours. I say inexplicably mostly because I don’t speak Croatian. Neither does Holly, funnily enough, and so we were both left scratching our heads as the driver took the bus in and out of park while slamming on the brake pedal and calling out in Croatian. We managed to get the gist of it; the bus was broken, something to do with the brakes, and we wouldn’t be going anywhere for awhile. We weren’t too bothered, we didn’t have a schedule to keep, we had snacks in our bags (always have travel snacks), the view from our breakdown spot was incredibly beautiful, and our kindles were charged and full of books. Even if a replacement bus didn’t come for the next day, we’d be fine. Some of our fellow passengers, however, weren’t so lucky. Two ladies, not travelling together, both started…how to put it?…freaking out. They had planes to catch and had not budgeted in time for their bus to break down on the side of a highway. One of the other passengers, a middle aged woman who clearly liked to take charge in situations she shouldn’t be taking charge of, marched down the bus and told them it was alright, she had a solution. They would pray. My eyebrows rose at hearing this, but rose higher when one of the women agreed. The other one responded more akin to my own thoughts, “or we could call for a replacement bus.” They ended up doing both. Not that either woman would see the replacement bus. They managed to score themselves a lift from a passing good Samaritan. Divine intervention? We’ll never know.

Split, as suggested earlier, is a coastal town, as much of Croatia is. Old world Mediterranean architecture rubs shoulders with startling blue ocean water, and holds port to a large number of skiffs, sail boats, and cruise ships. The center of Split is Diocletian’s Palace, an ancient roman building that more resembles a large fortress that a traditional palace. It was built at the turn of the fourth century AD, and has had quite a history since that time, with many conquerors moving in and out as the years passed. Today it is home to the city’s interior with twisting passage ways and shopfronts sprawling out from it like ink leaking through water. Rich white buildings and pillars, courtyards and underground passages, are now home to shops and cafes, gorgeous places to sit and drink a cup of strong coffee, or browse the many delicious food options available. I was very taken with it, but we didn’t have too much time to explore because, on a whim, we had booked ourselves on a sunset cruise.

With the sun setting we drank beer, ate canapes, and listened to music from the boats resident band. We felt fancy and exhilarated, and, later, drunk; having taken advantage of the endless alcohol a little too hard. Still, it was a beautiful night, spent beside my favourite person. Split had impressed, leaving us with the vow to hopefully return one day and see what else Croatia had to offer.

 

Next it was onto Prague, aka, my new all-time favourite city. I don’t say that lightly either, by the way. I’ve been lucky enough to visit many amazing cities in the past three months, but Prague…Prague was something else.

Part of it was the history, which is long, and terrible, and fascinating. Part of it is the beer, which is hoppy, and varied, and delicious. Part of it was the chimney cakes, which, well, look them up and you’ll see. But mostly it was the grandness of the city itself. The way every turn of every corner found some new architectural delight. How the streetlamps glowed. How the cobbles gleamed against their light. How if I squinted my eyes only a little I could swear I had walked into a city of wood and stone previously only found in the high fantasy books I grew up on. That was the most thrilling part of it all. When I read those books and heard about these grand old cities full of towers and turrets, ale and aged meats, manors and magic, I dreamed of walking through their streets. I thought this was only possible in the pages of books written by imaginative women and men, but in Prague, I lived this dream. The book obsessed teenager in me rippled to the surface and practically squealed as he walked across Charles Bridge, grinned madly at the aged Gothic statues dotting its surface, and took photo after photo of the sprawling, magisterial castle that overlooked it all. I’ve been lucky enough to have visited a number of medieval cities in my time, but none of them came close to living my fantasy the way Prague did.

I liked it, in case that wasn’t clear.

I immediately messaged Brother Jonathan, who had already been here himself, to madly share my gushing of the fact that I was in a city from the books we loved so much. I don’t remember his response but no doubt it was more subdued than the drunk-on-happiness text I’d sent him.

The next day we were already penciled in to do a walking tour of the city, needless to say I was very excited. The tour was ran by an affable North American man who had also come to the city because of love, both of the city and his now wife who was born in a town not far from Prague. This love of his (for the city, not his wife) was infectious and if I hadn’t already been spellbound by Prague at the start of his tour I would have been by the end.

From there there’s not too much more to say. We spent the rest of that day exploring it as best we could in our given time, grazing our way through as much food and drink as our stomachs would allow, and repeatedly declaring that next time we came back to Europe we would see more of Prague and more of the Czech Republic. I have no doubt it still has other hidden treasures to discover.

 

The magic of travel is that I get to visit worlds unknown to me. Yes, they may be my world, they may be the planet I’m already familiar with, but until I rocked my way over Croatia’s water, and strolled through Prague’s impressive streets, they didn’t exist to me. Not really.

Now they do, and what a wonderful, magical, and beneficial thing that is.

+

Talk soon

Damian

October 9, 2018

View

The travels continue. The Lady Holly and I have made our way through five countries in the past twelve days. That fact still astounds this previously isolated Australian. Back home I could drive all day and only just make it to the other end of the state. But here I can, and did, do a day trip from Austria to Slovakia in less time than it takes me to get to work.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. When last we spoke I was in Berlin, digging through its substrate to find hidden treasures. Much has happened since then, and I want to tell you all about it.

++++

We left Berlin by air, a shaky little budget airline, on a flight in which I read, Holly slept, and a giant sat beside me (or as close to a giant as a six foot something human can be–while I do sometimes wish I were taller I did not envy his height in this instance, my knees mostly fit under the chair in front, which is more than I can say for my giant seatmate). The turbulence and my fear of flying had me grabbing the armrest but the views we came upon, islands and oceans, also had me grabbing my camera (but also still the armrests). We were flying from Germany to Croatia, a short flight time-wise, but a large change in both climate and culture. We left six degrees plus windchill from a country full of beer and bread to land in the sunny Mediterranean where shorts, sunglasses, and cocktails were commonplace.

We were in Split, but we wouldn’t be here for long, spending just one night before a bus would take us across the border into Bosnia and Herzegovina. We will return to Split and so I’ll tell you more about that in just a moment, but, first, Mostar.

Mostar is one of the more important cities in the Herzegovina region, a city of old beauty and recent war. Its history is primarily one of conflict, as it sits between old dividing lines, nationalities, and religions. This conflict, however, mostly stems from the leaders, politicians, and the usual pack of arseholes who are too greedy for power and so ruin things for the rest of us. Its people, or at least the ones we met, primarily want one thing; peace. But we’ll circle back to that in just a moment.

Our first impression of Mostar was unfortunately not a good one. The budget bus line we were travelling with was running late, and so skipped a stop. Our stop. The one we had mapped a course to our accommodation from. Instead the bus dropped us off on the other side of town, where our lack of Bosnian and the drivers lack of English meant we really had no idea exactly where we were. The area was a little run down, and a beggar girl (the only one we saw the whole time it should be noted) greeted us as we stepped off the bus with an outstretched palm.  Like I said, not a great first impression, although, to be fair, few bus stations are. We were tired and lost and unsure of safety. We would later learn that we were never in any danger, Mostar is a remarkably safe city, especially for tourists who are very welcome there, but at this time we just wanted to make it to our accommodation as quickly as possible. There were two obstacles to that, however. The first was that, while I did have a sim card that provided me with 4G in a large number of countries across Europe, Bosnia and Herzegovina was not one of them. WiFi was also not available, at least at the bus station, and so any help from our phones was off the table. The second was that we didn’t have the right currency. Bosnia and Herzegovina is part of the European union, but are a later addition and so haven’t converted their currency to the Euro. Again, we would later learn that plenty of places did accept Euro, but for now we thought we might as well have monopoly money. We shook ourselves out of self pity and went and found an ATM. Now cashed up, the next thing was to find a taxi. We found one, but the guy took a phone call midway through Holly explaining where we were trying to go, and waved us away. Cool. So, it was onto the next one. Again, Holly explained where we were trying to get to, and after the driver conversed with a friend who must have known the roads better than he did, we were on our way. Things were looking up.

Accommodation in Mostar is largely guest houses, and ours did not disappoint. Our host, Nina, was kind and welcoming, with a delicious Eastern European accent that had me wanting to mimic it just to feel the taste of the words on my tongue. I did not, at least not while she was still there. The house was big, we had the entire first floor, which was a two bedroom house in itself, and wonderfully clean after the unfortunate experience with the apartment in Berlin. It was also laughably cheap, considering how nice it was and its great location; we were only a ten minute walk from old town. With our spirits well and truly lifted we decided to waste no time and go check it out.

The wounds and scabs of the recent Croat-Bosniak war were obvious as we walked, present in the form of dilapidated buildings, chipped and broken mortar, and the simple shells of what once were homes.

Around those though, was rebuilding. The war officially ended back in 1994 and while Mostar still hasn’t recovered to what they were previously it’s not for lack of trying. For all the bombings that happened during the war, and there were many, the old town mostly managed to stay clear of it. I say mostly for one very important reason. The bridge. The heart of old town, the heart of Mostar, and a proud feature for the locals, is the Stari Most, which translates, simply, to Old Bridge. They call it how it is in Mostar. They have good reason to be proud of this iconic feature because it really is quite lovely. 

Unfortunately, back in 1993, after standing for four hundred and twenty seven years, it came down. Military forces during the war destroyed it, after first destroying every other bridge in the city. The people were devastated, understandably, and it wasn’t until 2004, after the war had ended, that it was rebuilt, thanks in part to the financial aid of a number of neighbouring countries.

The bridge, however, is just the peak of the enchanting old town, where multi layer, bazaar-laden, cobbled streets are rich with people, riverfront seating, and the smells of spices and cooking. We were quickly caught by the charm of the place. It seemed like another world. Like a little pocket of medieval Arabia. A town from another era, which indeed it was. 

We wandered more than walked until our stomachs told us it was time to find out just what the source of the delicious smells were. Thanks to some of Holly’s research we already had a destination in mind, and, keen to try just about everything on their very tasty sounding menu, ordered the grill platter for two. What the restaurant neglected to mention was that this meal must have been meant for two ogres or bears or anything that can eat more than the average human because the pile of food that came out was certainly more than Holly and I could handle. We did our best, we really did, but it was a mountain of meat, with ponds of various dips and sauces, thick vegetation in the form of fresh vegetables and cheese, and at its base a plate of bread that could have, on its own, feed us both comfortably. It, and I, looked like this:

Food

I would not look like that by the time we were done. I would look bloated and full and like I’d just eaten my weight in meat, which indeed I had. The whole thing cost fifteen euro.

We spent the next few days exploring this broken and beautiful place. We had two guides in this time, one young, born towards the end of the conflict, hopeful and energetic and proud, the other older, having lived through the war, less energetic, with some bitterness, but still proud. This time would prove to be some of the most engaging of our entire trip. While we have visited countries that had experienced wars of their own, never had it been so recent, and, ironically, never had I known so little of it. This had happened in my lifetime. While I had happily been running around in grade two, these people had been running across streets to avoid sprays of bullets, hiding in shelters as bombs fell over head, protecting what they could from a war they didn’t want, didn’t agree with, but that they had found on their doorstep nonetheless.

The heart of the Croat-Bosniak war comes from three nationalist groups coming into power and then using this power to try and gain more power. They used past county lines and religious differences to try and gain territory and dispel people. Concentration camps were set up, families split, people killed; the usual laundry list of atrocities that come from war, and it had happened just over two decades ago on the land we were now walking. Our second guide, the older one, while explaining all this, mentioned in passing that he had been a soldier during it all, by necessity more than choice. He also explained that even though the war was over the effects were still being felt, and that many of his friends had turned to drugs and alcohol after a fragile peace was restored. He told us this not with anger or bitterness, just fact, the same way he pointed at a billboard for the upcoming elections and told us the man on it, the one looking for votes, was a war criminal who had avoided punishment. He spoke a lot that day, and for the most part Holly and I listened. As he talked I got the sense that he had avoided the fate of his friends because he talked, because he had people who listened, even if they were strangers from a foreign land who’d paid for the privilege. His tourism had turned to therapy. I hope he continues to talk. I hope that tourists continue to visit. I hope that war never finds them again, even if the roots of it are already trying to find ground.

There was one other thing, one beautiful and inspiring thing, that both guides told us. It has to do with the people that share Mostar’s borders. People from three lands, Croatia, Bosnia, and Serbia, each with differing religions, Catholic, Muslim, and Christian Orthodox. These differences were the reasons the nationalists used to start their war, and the one they continue to try and use to re-flare it, but separatism is not something felt by the people of Mostar. Quite the opposite. “Unity is the spirit of Mostar” is what both guides told us. That was how they said it, the spirit of Mostar. They said it with pride, they said it with hope, as they explained how before the fighting all these differing parties had lived, worshiped, and even married together, how tolerance and understanding was common in a place that could have instead been a boiling pot.

To say I was humbled by Mostar and its people would be an understatement. We primarily went to Bosnia and Herzegovina for the lovely scenery and pools of turquoise water, and we definitely got that, but we got something else as well. A deeper understanding of the evils of mankind, yes, but also the kindness that often gets overshadowed by it. A kindness that should never be disregarded and never be forgotten.

++++

I was planning to write more on this leg of the trip but this feels like a nice stopping point, so I’ll save that for next time. Instead, I’ll leave you with some of the scenery I mentioned.

Talk soon,

Damian

August 19, 2018

p1050871

++++

Words written for the year: 98,482

++++

At the moment of writing I am sitting in a low lit pub, heavily wooded, founded back in eighteen something something, and festooned with Guinness paraphernalia. There is a beer in front of me, it is black and creamy, and whenever I take a drink it adds a second mustache on top of my home grown one. Across from me sits the Lady Holly, she is looking lovely

This is a scene we have repeated many times in the past week as we’ve road tripped across the western edge of Ireland, and I have yet to grow sick of it. Far from. Were it not for the cost and the effect all the beer is no doubt having on heart and liver, I feel like I could continue this trend forever.

We’ve had many pleasant days in this wet and green country, but I’d like to tell you about just one as I think it epitomises the rest of them. The day in question was last Thursday.

We woke in the comfortable AirBnB we had rented, and I started the day by excitedly checking my phone for news of the imminent birth of my nephew. All was silent on the Eli front, so I got up and started getting ready for the day we had planned from the advice of previous tenants of our room, collected in a small book left by the owners of the house.

We were in Killarney, which has won itself the spot as my favourite place in Ireland. It had stiff competition, as all the places we’ve visited had either fine pubs or beautiful nature. Killarney, however, has both. They tag themselves as ‘the town in the park’, the park being The Killarney National Park; an impressive expanse of woodland that contains lakes, mountain peaks, waterfalls, red deer, and, for two days, two Australians named Holly and Damian. The park is large, one hundred and three square kilometers, and circles around one third of the town, giving Killarney a perpetual hug. Then there’s the town itself, which is full of character and overflowing with pubs. Over fifty in total, each one full of beer, rich food, and, come the night, traditional Irish music. But we’ll get to that.

We left the house and picked up a lazy man’s breakfast of a pre-packed sandwich at the nearby Tesco, and then traveled the short seven kilometers to the park and Muckross House; an old Tudor-style mansion that forms the heart of the national park. After doing a quick lap of the house we left it to the busloads of incoming tourists and walked further into the park, towards Torc waterfall.

The day was surprisingly sunny. We had already learnt by then that any weather in Ireland is only ever temporary, and so, counting the current sun as good fortune we hurried on, marvelling at the twisted trees by the cold blue lake before edging into the lush wet forest.

It didn’t take long before our now well worn-in boots traversed the trail to the waterfall. It was heavy with water, cascading down into the clear river and mossy rocks below. The full trees sheltered us from the now light rain, with edges of sunlight already returning. It was a fairy tale scene, one that made me look around for the nymphs and pixies that I knew had to be hiding somewhere. After a poorly taken selfie we continued on, walking a trail uphill. We climbed up above the lake, the kilometers falling away behind us. We finished the trail but found we wanted to walk some more and so entered another feature of the park; a route that took you through the workings of a traditional farm. It was spotted with old farmsteads, saddle-makers, and a schoolyard–but easily the best part was the animals. Pigs and donkeys and Irish wolfhounds and goats, all happy to receive a scratch around the ears and a pat on their bottom.

It was now close to one o’clock and having had our nature craving sated headed into town for a drink. We took our pick of one of the local pubs and settled in, me with my laptop to work on a story, and Holly with a book. A few hours and drinks later (and a lot of “fooking insert-word-here” from the locals) we decided we needed some fresh air and so, braced against the now cold, headed towards the local cathedral. We saw some green behind it and followed the footpath in, only to realise it was yet another entrance to the national park. We saw signs towards Ross Castle. Carefree and with nothing else pressing, decided it must again be the walking part of our walk/drink cycle, as so started moving. It was slow movement thanks to routinely standing under trees to wait out the latest batch of five-minute rain, but pleasant, warmed by the romance of the moment and the beer in our bellies.

A quick walk through the castle was followed by deer spotting and the fervent wish that a badger (magical or otherwise) would join us on our walk. None did and we made it back to town, taking our total kilometers walked for the day up to twenty one. We took up residence in another pub to while the evening away before hopping to a restaurant for dinner, and then from there to yet another pub called Courtney’s to await the night’s music.

We had passed Courtney’s the night before, drawn in by the sound of it’s resident band only to find many others had already followed the lure and that there was no seating available. We had been determined not to make the same mistake twice, and so got in early to score the best seats in the house. It was worth it. The band wasn’t really a band, but rather one guitarist who had invited any available friends to come jam with him. At first it was him and an accordion player. They belted out two toe tapping tracks, both exceptionally proficient at their chosen instrument. Then a third fellow joined them. I eyed his instrument case keenly, hoping with everything I had that there was a fiddle inside. There was. The next song started, rich, and fun, and improvised. Then a fourth man pulled up a seat and took out an instrument that I had never seen before and that I can best describe as somewhere between bagpipes and a clarinet. I’ve since learned the instrument are called Uileann pipes, and can tell you they were a treat to watch played. With all the avengers assembled the music rose to even greater heights that left me grinning like a pleased pug. The atmosphere was perfect. The pub, older than my great great grandmother, was full with tourists and locals alike, the candlelight giving the space an almost ethereal glow. I had a drink in front of me, Holly beside me, and music swirling around us both like water in a river.

The next day Holly wrote about the music of Courtney’s in the book at our AirBnB and I couldn’t help but wonder who would come after us, who would read her words and retrace our steps to discover the sights and sounds of this soul warming Irish town. I hope they enjoy it as much as we did.

Talk soon,

Damian

August 8, 2018

P1050467

Another track from Passenger for today’s post. As this blog has temporarily turned into a travel journal I thought this song was particularly apt. It’s called Young as the Morning, Old as the Sea. Note the lyrics.

++++

Words written for the year: 94,897

++++

Holly and I left Edinburgh four days ago. We picked up our rental car and headed north, into the highlands. A lot has happened in those four days, most good, one thing not so good, and now we find ourselves on the Isle of Skye, where we are staying in a tiny wee home for the next three nights.

The Isle of Skye is exactly as imposing and impressive as you may have been told or read about. It is a landscape so rich with stunning views that it feels like just driving around is activity enough; until you get to one of its landmarks and see exactly how much greater it will prove itself to be. This beauty, though, is not for the faint-hearted, at least, not from our experience. Mist and fog and rain are an almost constant, although it is summer and so showers of sunshine do occasionally roll across the sky. The mist shrouds the mountain tops, hiding them, forcing you to wait, hoping that it will part so you can see the true grandeur hiding behind it. And then, when it does….worth it. This seems to be a staple of this harsh Scottish isle. The promise of great beauty, but only for those who prove themselves particularly persistent or stubborn.

Our first stop in the Isle of Skye was to a landmark known as the fairy pools. A cute name to be sure, but as we drove up the single lane road, which was boarded with sharp edges and thick deposits of mud that practically told us we would be bogged if we edged too far to either side, we saw that these fairy pools would require some work before we could enjoy them. We pulled as far to the side of the road as we could, slightly widened in this area as a makeshift car park– the actual car park already overflowing–and stepped out into the mud as a fine sleet, not even counted as rain by the locals, but that which nevertheless got us damp, settled over the area. We followed the mud track and other tourists down a hillside until we got to a river. The only path across was a series of stones, well submerged in the water. The first test. We, along with many others, searched up and down the river for another way to cross. There was not one to be found. The path and car park were man made, yes, as were the submerged stones, but it would seem that if you want to see this particular spot of beauty then you better be prepared to get your feet wet. After some umming and ahhing and talk of going back to the car we decided that we were worthy of seeing the fairy pools, and choose to prove it. With the water above our ankle and the very real fear that we would slip on the submerged stones and join them in the river, we stepped once, twice, three times, four, then a final fifth, until we made it across onto a wide and well laid path that made us ask the question if you can build a path, why not build a bridge? But we already knew the answer, and so with a stubborn and persistent pace began to walk up the hill, to the pools that ran alongside it. It was worth it.

IMG_20180806_151325

The next morning we got up early, had a quick breakfast, then hit the road, eager to beat the rest of the tourists to another landmark known as the Old Man of Storr. While we were successful in beating the crowds, even scoring an actual parking spot in the car park, there was one element we were never going to beat; the weather. That didn’t matter though, because we had come prepared. We had ponchos. Ponchos that were untested and may have as well have been made of cling wrap. These flimsy pieces of plastic were as unready for this mountaintop weather as we ourselves were, so at least in that way we were well matched (our fault entirely of course, they didn’t even have full length sleeves! Always test your gear before packing it) Nevertheless we covered ourselves in the brightly coloured garb, mine tearing immediately, and started walking. We had only gone a few dozen meters when the weather thought to test us further. The wind picked up, the rain fell harder, and over the loud flapping of our crappy ponchos we yelled to each other if perhaps we thought we should head back. We almost buckled, almost failed the test, but then rallied and continued up the mountain, our poor choice of clothes quickly becoming soaked. Seeing our perseverance and stubbornness, the isle rewarded us. The clouds parted, sunlight showed itself, and after around thirty minutes we had climbed into a scene I previously thought must only exist in fantasy books.

IMG_20180807_090618

The sheer magnitude of the scenery made me want to run around the mountains like a child, which I did. We made it to a peak where the wind roared and did its best to knock us from our feet. I breathed it in, full of elation and adrenaline. We then saw grey clouds approaching on the very same wind and decided it was time to head down. The inevitable happened. Rain and wind came on us once more, even stronger than before, made worse by how high we were. My adrenaline dropped as my clothes became truly soaked and I realised just how far down we had to climb. We were so poorly dressed, so very wet, all we could do was laugh, yelling at each other how mad this was over the screaming of the wind. We made it back to the car and once more the sun returned. Was it worth it? Of course it was. We drove on.

More sights were seen, more breathtaking landscape passed through, until I just had to stop commenting on it because every turn of the road revealed some new remarkable backdrop. We picked up some beers, made it back to our tiny home, and, once warm and dry, rose a toast to being perseverant and stubborn.

Talk soon,

Damian

August 2, 2018

P1050097
Frank Turner’s Be More Kind is today’s blog song. A sweet song with a poignant message.

++++

Words written for the year: 92,032

++++

I am at this moment sitting in a park, surrounded by gravestones, atop a literal mountain of bodies. I have a slight buzz thanks to the whisky tour I just completed, and I can hear the faint sound of bagpipes blown to me by the almost constant breeze. If you guessed I’m in Scotland you would be quite correct. If you guessed I was in Edinburgh you would be even more correct. I could have also told you that I just finished eating a roast pork roll that had the option of haggis stuffing but I felt like that would have been giving it away.

After a very enjoyable second week in Vienna, including a weekend away to the picturesque St. Wolfgang, the Lady Holly and I said farewell to J and A and flew to Edinburgh. It’s been quite magical. Not least because it’s festival season here, something we were dimly aware of, and which means there are roughly five different festivals taking place; all of which have a staggering amount of acts that are all competing for your attention at the same time. Because of this the city is bursting with people, with its populations likely to double this month. It does make sense however, because if you want to run a festival in Scotland it would have to be during the short summer months. In our three days here we’ve mostly worn jumpers and beanies and have been rained on every day. I can only imagine what winter looks like.

This increase of tourists is not a bad thing however. One, because we ourselves are tourists, so who are we to complain, and two, because the city is crackling with energy. Everywhere we go there are buskers performing, people handing out flyers asking (arguably begging) us to see their show, pop up bars, pop up venues, tour groups, comedians, and a general sense of excitement and holiday mentality that can usually only be found at Christmas; all surrounded by the stunningly old and stunningly well maintained city of Edinburgh. It’s quite the atmosphere.

Speaking of Edinburgh’s age, we’re staying at an airbnb in the new part of Edinburgh–new meaning it’s roughly two hundred and fifty years old. Which sounds a little crazy until I consider that the old part of town is roughly eight hundred years old, or more. It’s all a little staggering. The bedroom I’m staying in was built roughly seventy years before my hometown of Melbourne was even founded. The gravestone next to me, which is one of the newer looking ones I should note, is two hundred and fourteen years old.
As you can imagine, a city with that much time under its belt it has a substantial amount of history trodden into its cobblestones. We’ve only done a couple of walking tours in our short time here but it already seems that any one spot in Edinburgh has a dozen stories attached to it; most of which are brutal or comical or both.

It is a city of filth and festivals, cholera and culture, bloodshed and beer. It’s a place where you can find multiple pubs on every street, where graveyards are also park lands, where it’s heroes are scoundrels and dogs (literally), and where history drips out of every crack to soak into your imagination and shoes.

I love it.

++++

Remember to look after yourself, disconnect when you need to, go for a walk even if it’s raining, put your phone in the other room and read a book for an hour. The world can wait.

Talk soon,

Damian