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history lessons

Somewhere in Australia in a dusty forgotten box I have a hefty steel compass that was one of my great-grandfather’s tools of trade.

My great-grandfather was nominally Czech because his family home was in Opava near the current border of the Czech Republic and Poland. But he was born in the late 19th C –  the time of Empire – prior to the hard and fast national borders of the modern nation state and in the manner appropriate to my great-grandfather’s class and station he was educated in Vienna as a forest administrator and entered a civil service in which he answered directly to the Austro-Hungarian Hapsburg regime.

As the might of the Ottoman Empire started to wane, Bosnia – which for centuries had been one under its control – changed hands in 1878 and fell instead under Hapsburg dominion. The Hapsburgs had a more acquisitive eye then their predecessors and resource extraction was the new order of the day in Bosnia. It was as part of this colonial project that my great-grandfather was sent, in the early 20th C, to the Sarajevo region to manage forestry resources there for the benefit of the imperial rulers in Vienna.

One of my great-grandfather’s primary tasks was to guard against ‘poaching’ by the local population and to this end he had command of a small private army. When my grand-father took up his post the Sarajevo police commissioner dropped by to pay his respects and recommend that if my great-grandfather found anyone at all in his new domain that he didn’t recognise then he should simply shoot them. And subsequently, my uncle reports although he wouldn’t have been there to see it himself, pitched battles with ‘gypsies’ did, indeed, take place.

It was out of some of these imperial power struggles and the stirrings of new nationalist sentiments that the First World War erupted. Historians striving to achieve some sort of narrative clarity generally nominate Sarajevo as the geographical point zero of World War 1 with the assassination there of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife Sophie, by Serbian nationalists, the fatal spark that ignited the conflagration that subsequently engulfed the world.

My great-grandfather and his family remained in Bosnia during the war although my grandfather, at the tender age of 12, was sent to a military academy in Vienna where alongside more intellectual pursuits he was instructed in military strategy and the arcane martial arts of fencing and hand to hand combat with a sabre.

As the war progressed food supply became a critical issue in Europe at large and my great-grandfather was instructed to set up fish farms in Bosnia to produce food for the troops. My uncle remembers photos in the family albums featuring his grand-father standing amidst groups Serbian war prisoners hard at work digging ponds surrounded by huge mounds of earth.

One war finished and before long another came and pushed aside memories of the first and, in the aftermath of it all, people scattered across the globe. What stories I heard from my grandparents who were settled in Australia by the time I was born were all of the Second World War and it wasn’t until I formally interviewed my uncle in the US as an adult I learnt anything of my forebears adventures in Bosnia.

But now I am here and when I contemplate my family history I feel that perhaps I have some secret ineffable connection to Bosnia and its woods and once I learn that Bosnia is home to one of Europe’s most ancient forests I am determined to visit it.

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This is one of the most ancient forests in the world.

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The steep sided mountains provide shelter for this remnant of old growth forest. My walk takes me deep into one of these valleys and into the Sutjeska forest which is refuge to wolves and bears and other wildlife. I keep an eager eye out but I don’t see anything more than bear scat on the path.

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The national park straddles the border between Bosnia and Montenegro.

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Wildflowers bloom in mountain meadows.

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the roses of sarajevo (or: scars)

Walking through the woods, foraging for mushrooms, I suddenly freeze. Is it safe to step here?

This is not an idle fear. Parts of Bosnia have yet to be cleared of land mines and while most of the danger areas are known and marked accidents do still happen from time to time. My dubious grasp of the local language amplifies my fears: What exactly did those signs that were fastened to the trees along the road through the forest that I’ve been riding on say?

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The temptation of chanterelles overcome my nerves in the Bosnain forest, but only so long as there is a clear indication that other people have been this way in recent times.

There is no denying that Bosnia is spectacularly beautiful and sometimes – like when the muezzin’s call to prayer wafts across Prokoško Lake on a sunny afternoon  – it is hard to imagine a more peaceful scene. A man, who I had asked for directions hours before down in the valley far below, greets me when I finally make it over the pass and down to the shores of the lake. He invites me into a tiny wooden cottage for coffee and his wife and daughter ply me with burek and cake before I wander to the edge of the lake for a well-earned swim.

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This settlement on the peaceful shores of Prokoško Lake is conveniently close to Sarajevo and a popular place for holidays and weekends.

In Sarajevo, the intelligent and personable young man leading the group I am part of on a free walking tour of the city casually mentions that he spent his childhood hiding in basements. It seemed a bit like a game at first, he says; but then he makes it quite clear that no child really wants to play a game that lasts the best part of four years – probably not even one where the cumulative privations and losses entailed by its savage nature are less traumatic.

Sarajevo’s museums all contain exhibits illustrating atrocity and war – a haunting photographic record of traces that, despite the best efforts of the perpetrators to efface them, point undeniably to the hideous brutality of the genocidal Srebrenica massacres, the tunnel whereby food and medical supplies were secreted into the besieged city, the graveyards full of the dead, the local brewery which is now more notable for the spring that provided besieged Sarajevo residents with fresh water than for the quality of its beer.

Our guide finishes up what is – given the difficult subject matter – a surprisingly engaging, and even optimistic, tour by asking us to assure our friends and family that Bosnia and Sarajevo are safe now and to encourage them to visit. Bosnia’s best hopes for the future are in tourism, he believes. And it is impossible not to hope that Bosnia’s future is brighter than its past.

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Sarajevo sits in a valley and the Serbian forces subjected the city to a relentless siege from the surrounding hills. Between 1992 and 1996, for a total of 1,425 days, artillary and sniper fire rained down on the residents of Sarajevo.

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Sarajevo’s streets are scarred in the places where shells fell and where one or more fatalities occurred the craters have been filled with red resin to memorialise the victims. These are Sarajevo Roses.

On leaving Sarajevo, when, in order to avoid a major highway, I decide to follow a lead provided by an intriguing line marked on my map, I unwittingly embark on another dark tourism foray into the bitter heart of Bosnia. I really don’t think that I have retrospectively conjured up the eerie silence that descended as I turned off the main road and started pedalling along Crna Rijeka (Black River).

The road rose and fell as it traversed the valley. There was no other traffic, no inhabited houses in view, no sounds of life, no matter how faint or distant.  At the top of a rise, I was arrested by the sight of a multi-lingual memorial plaque commemorating the lives of a group of twelve UN personnel who perished somewhere nearby in a helicopter crash. In English, German, and Romanian the names are listed under the claim that they died here in the cause of freedom and justice. The melancholy reminder of personal sacrifice and lost lives leaves me pondering on the fragile nature of peace in Bosnia and the elusiveness of freedom and justice.

I finally arrive at the top of the pass late in the afternoon, tired and hungry, hoping for a place to rest while I eat lunch. And certainly there is an open area, some picnic tables and even a fountain of drinking water but the scene is dominated by an ugly billboard. In acid green, yellow and red the sign shouts:

MINE – MINE – MINE – MINE – MINE – MINE – MINE – MINE – MINE – MINE – MINE – MINE – MINE

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Significant areas of land in Bosnia are still off limits.

I eat and cycle on my way.

My next ‘destination’ in Bosnia is Sutjeska National Park where I want to explore what is said to be one of the two oldest forests in Europe.

It is probably clear by now that I am not a particularly assiduous planner. In Sarajevo, a couple of tourist services offered guided walks in Sutjeska National Park but guided walks are not for me. I decide instead to follow my usual research strategy for an area of interest which is simply to ride to a nearby sizeable town in the hope that I can pick up maps and enough relevant information to set out independently. In this case, the town where I am hoping to gather information is called Foča.

I cycle into Foča in the morning without having entirely shaken the creepy feeling that riding and camping in the war-ravaged Goražde valley had induced in me. But it quickly becomes apparent that there is nothing at all in Foča to uplift the spirit.

The first thing I notice is that unlike that other areas that I have passed through in Bosnia, here the street signs and advertising are exclusively in Cyrillic script. With no obvious centre to the town I ride around at loss for while hoping for some kind of ineffable invitation to arrive from one of the cafes or restaurants. As that hope fades, I stop at an open fronted cafe populated by a group of three or four men nursing beers in the dark interior. I sit in the morning sun at one of the outside tables, order a coffee and then get out my laptop to see if I can locate a tourist service of some kind.

But on typing ‘Foča’ into the search field of my browser the autocomplete function helpfully suggests that what I might be looking for information on is: ‘Foča rape camps’ or ‘Foča massacres’ or ‘Foča war crimes’. I hesitate a moment before plunging into the abyss. When I finally raise my eyes from the computer screen and look around the cafe at the other customers I find that I don’t want to meet their eyes or smile or answer their questions about where I am from or where I am going. I get up to pay for my coffee but one of the men makes a show of paying for it himself and my muttered thanks choke me.

I get on my bike and ride out of town.

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bosnian barbeque

It is only two days after attending a party, uninvited, on the Croatian Bosnian border that I find myself inadvertently gate-crashing another gathering. But this time I am the very first guest to arrive. In fact I arrive before the hosts do.

It’s the end of a long hot day in the mountains and I am finally descending after many hours of extended and arduous climbs. I have already spent some time looking for a suitable place to camp – first in depressingly rubbish strewn pine forest around a decaying out of season ski resort that sprawled over the summit of the mountain and then as I dropped down along a rugged rocky gorge which provided plenty of dramatic views but not much by way of a flat sheltered spot to pitch a tent.

Finally, the valley opens out a little on either side of the river and eventually I spy a gravel road leading over a bridge away from the main road. I turn onto it, duck under the locked steel boom barrier across the road at the far side of the bridge and ride along the track sheltered from the view of any car driving along the main road on the other side of the river by scrubby bushes on the river banks. After a few hundred metres I come across a flat grassy area which would make a perfect camp site – perfect, that is, but for the presence of a small hut and a basic roofed structure sheltering a couple of long picnic tables and a fire place for barbeques.

I get off the bike and look around searching for clues as to what kind of place this is. Privately owned? Or public property? A sports club or association, perhaps? I glance at my watch: 8PM on a Sunday night. Who would turn up now?

I walk to the river and scout the steep banks for somewhere to access the water. It’s not long before I find some rough concrete steps and I’m very grateful to strip off and wash away the day’s sweat and grime. I return to the bike and unpack my meagre supplies and consider what I might eat for dinner. I’m just starting to relax as darkness falls. It is then that two cars rattle down the road and pull up in a cloud of dust in front of me.

Men tumble out of the cars and busy themselves unloading the vehicles. One walks straight past me without a glance and unlocks the hut. He returns to the shelter with an extension cord which he plugs into a socket and the bare bulbs hanging low over the table light up. The others come to the tables carrying plastic bags and boxes and start to unpack meat, bread, beer.

“Hello,” I say.

The man in possession of the keys approaches and shakes my hand brusquely. Another man joins us and asks in imperfect English, “Are you going to sleep here?”

“Ummmm. Well, yes,…. I thought I might….”

There is is no convincing way to deny it. My sleeping bag and tent are conspicuously draped over the wood pile airing out a little.

“Okay. Okay. No problem.”

“Thank you. Thank you very much. That’s very kind of you.”

They turn away.

The fire is lit and meat and sausages are soon sizzling away. The men – there are about 8 or 9 of them – sit at the table and start to tackle the cases of beer they have brought with them. The conversation is animated and loud and utterly unintelligible to me.

It isn’t until the meat is cooked and on the table that anyone addresses me again. And then, with a sense of hospitality that extends to even the most unwelcome of uninvited guests, food and drink are pressed upon me.  A plastic plate piled up with a giant pork chop and a couple of sausages is pushed across the table, along with a bottle of beer and some bread.

“Eat!”

I do.

The English speaker of the group has an uncertain grasp of the language but his confidence grows as the meal progresses. As the quantity of empty beer bottles on the table steadily increases he starts to translate various questions that are directed at me. The enquiries traverse a well worn path: where are you from? where are you going? aren’t you scared? isn’t it dangerous for a woman to travel alone?

I find these questions wearisome but under the circumstances I do my best to answer patiently. Certain destinations on my proposed route south east through Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia, Bulgaria and Turkey raise vociferous objections.

“Albania! You can’t trust the people there! They are all criminals.”

“Turkey! But it’s too dangerous!”

I repeat my favourite mantra: people are nice, people are kind, people are hospitable. I insist that this has always been my experience.

Eyes roll and and the men continue to voice doubts.

“But you know, …Muslims,… they are different, they just don’t respect women! It’s their culture.”

I shrug in the face of their knowing insinuations. What can I say? The fact is that none of us have yet travelled to the places we are discussing. We are all talking theoretically on the basis of our assumptions and preferred ideologies.

The men’s attention wanders and I sit listening to their talk.

“What are they talking about?” I ask the English speaker, after an interval.

“Hunting!” He laughs. “Always hunting!”

He attends to the conversation for a while and then laughs again and turns to me to explain.

“We went hunting today but didn’t kill anything. They are talking about the ones that got away. They grow bigger and bigger with each telling.”

I laugh, too.

“What language are you speaking?’ I ask.

“Serbian! We are Serbs!” The answer is emphatic.

“Ah. I can’t tell. You just look like people to me.”

He squirms a little. “Yes, yes. We think so, too.”

There is an awkward pause.

“What do you think of our country?”

I explain that people are nice, people are kind, people are hospitable. Just like most other places. Actually, to tell the truth, people are exceptionally hospitable in Bosnia. And it’s beautiful, I add. I wave an airy hand taking in the surrounding landscape – there are mountains, forests, rivers.

The men hasten to tell me that life used to be better, before the war. The town I passed through on the mountain top used to be a popular holiday destination, they say, but nobody goes there now. It’s not the same. One of the men gestures along the valley here – this area was a battle front, he says. The owner of the property explains that there used to be a proper house here, a hunting lodge that belonged to his father, but it was destroyed during the conflict. This hut is what they have found the means to rebuild since then. They are still working on it.

I commiserate. It’s sad, I say. Such a beautiful country. Such nice people.

Their attention focuses on me again. Are you married? No, no. But what about children? Don’t you have children? No, I don’t. The men all have families, of course.

And then they return to the question of fear. But aren’t you scared? Well, what of, I parry. Really, on the whole, I would prefer to deflect the conversation away from the potential dangers of being a woman alone in the world, especially since I am in the company of a sizeable group of increasingly inebriated men in an isolated mountain valley. But they continue to ponder the matter amongst themselves and in the end I am made to understand that they themselves are frankly scared of the dark.

“We are honoured to meet you!” they announce collectively. And I suppose it is on account of my courageous indifference to the regular arrival of the night.

I thank the men for their kindness, for sharing their meat and bread and beer, for unhesitatingly accepting my uninvited presence amongst them.

And then a question of my own occurs to me.

“And what about your wives? Do they ever come here? On the weekend, sometimes, perhaps?”

“Oh, no! Never! We keep our women in their place!”

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the trouble with exes: ex-empire, ex-communist, ex-yugoslavia

The evening with its fading light is my favourite time of day and the midsummer gloaming affords a slow lingering glow to bask in long after the brute force of the sun has gone. But tonight my pleasure is tempered by unease.

I’m approaching the Croatian border with Bosnia. All land borders are scored into the landscape arbitrarily but the violence here is stark and overt. The houses that line the road are scarred with shrapnel pock-marks, burnt out, all the roofs caved in. This is a border marked out in obvious human suffering.

Most of the houses are boarded up but amongst the derelict abandoned buildings are a few that have been repaired, replastered, repainted. Flowers bloom on the occasional window sill, some gardens are planted out with tomatoes and salad greens. Fruit trees that have probably seen more than one war pass over them still bear fruit. This is a bountiful time of year.

But the people who can be seen at work in the fields and gardens, or the ones already at rest on the benches at their front gates, are all old. There are no young people here and most of the buildings bear hopeful notices advertising the house “For Sale”. It is a melancholy scene and the camping prospects look grim. Sheltering for the night in the gutted shell of a house destroyed in an internecine war bodes fitful sleep.

But suddenly I hear music. An accordion, a guitar, voices singing. I turn and standing astride my bike on the road gaze back at a party of people sitting partly visible on a wide veranda at the back of one of the smarter houses. The song finishes and, after a moment of laughter and comment, another starts up.

A woman comes round the corner of the house to the open door at the side of the house carrying a pile of plates. She smiles and waves. A man sitting at the table looks up, catches sight of me, and beckons extravagantly. I am drawn in. The host of the party rises from the table to shake my hand. He sizes me up briefly, and then bids me sit down. A plate, food, a glass, wine, all appear in front of me as the bittersweet accordion music goes on.

The music is interspersed with snatches of conversation and those who can switch to English for my benefit. Milan, my host, takes it upon himself to make sure that I am adequately informed of the area’s history.

“As you can see, we had a war here.”

“Yes. I do see.”

He gestures at the circle of people around the table.

“This is my family. My sister, there, she lives in Belgrade. In Serbia. These are her children. They are Serbs. The man playing the accordion – he is my friend. He is Croatian. I am Croatian but I live in Bosnia.”

The children run out onto the neatly mowed lawn of the backyard. One little girl executes a neat cartwheel, legs straight and toes elegantly pointed. There are three children, a brother and a sister, and their younger cousin, the acrobat.

Milan gestures around the table again and tersely sums the matter up.

“Croatians. Serbs. Bosnians. It doesn’t matter.”

Another song starts and my wine glass is refilled. I protest but I am informed that this a drinking song and so we must drink. The guitarist speaks good English and is obviously a professional performer. He introduces each song with an anecdote or a joke. The songs are traditional songs from Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Bulgaria. Everyone knows the words and even I am familiar with a few.

“This was my father’s house,” Milan tells me. “I grew up here. Now all the houses are for sale. Nobody wants to live here after the war. Everybody has left. There is no money here. No work. I live on the other side of the border in Banja Luka.”

People around the table ask me questions.

Where am I from? Where am I going? What am I doing here?

These are questions that have no simple concrete answers. Or not ones that I am aware of.

I’m just travelling around, I say. Just looking at things. Meeting different people. It my turn to gesture around the table. Different people, different food, different music, I say, inanely, and my superficiality doesn’t pass unchecked.

Milan looks at me and says urgently, impatiently, “Yes, yes, all that is different – but really people are all deeply deeply deeply the same.”

I have no argument with him.

“Yes, of course. You are right.”

Later, after the musicians are gone and the party is breaking up, we stand around my bike gazing at it.

“When I was ten years old I remember seeing foreigners for the first time,” Milan says. “An Englishman on a bike. He had a big beard. I’ve never forgotten it.”

I try to imagine which of the legendary cycle tourists might have been in Yugoslavia in 1968 – there can’t have been that many cyclists casually passing by back then. Milan looks at the three children standing next to us.

“And they will remember you!” he adds. And then, suddenly and emphatically, he says, “I’m scared that there will be war again here.”

We look at the children and the little girl turns another pretty cartwheel.

Finally, when everyone has left, Milan shows me a bed and the bathroom, hands me a bunch of keys and instructs me where to put them when I leave in the morning and then he gets into his car with his wife and they drive back to Bosnia leaving me in sole possession of the house.

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leaving the citadel

Most people in south-eastern Europe don’t like the term ‘the Balkans’ and don’t use it to refer to themselves. And there is no real agreement as to exactly what area the name refers to, even amongst people who do use it, so I’m going to try to avoid it.

If there is a single thing that is generally agreed on, most probably it is that borders and identities are vexed and complicated around here. Certain categories are vague, overlapping, ill-defined, loose – and they continue to pose a problematic challenge to our modern fiction of the linguistically and ethnically homogenous nation state. But more of that later. For now what is important, to me at least, is that when I cross the frontier between Slovenia and Croatia I leave the Schengen Area, if not the EU. Croatia joined the EU in 2013 but for some reason, that isn’t clear to me, is not yet eligible to join the Schengen Agreement.

If Croatia’s membership of the EU has brought major economic improvements with it they are certainly not immediately apparent in this part of the country. Suddenly, I feel less scruffy and out of place. If Australia and Western Europe, where I have spent more that the last year, represent the land of plenty, well, now I have returned to the desert to resume my wanderings in the wilderness. And somehow I feel much more at home here.

Bye bye, Fortress Europe.

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I’m not one to romanticise poverty but I really do like countries where people still have livestock, grow at least some of their own food and know how to fix things when they break. That seems like a valuable set of resources and skills to me.

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Storks are a common sight all through Southern Europe. (They don’t care about borders, though: Schengen, EU, Slovenia, France, Italy, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia – it’s all the same to them.)

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western europe: connections and disconnections

I have to confess that Western Europe passed by in a bit of a blur and the experience was a little strange. On one hand it was just like home, I mean I’ve actually lived in a lot of these countries and have friends, family and even possessions, dotted about the place, but on the other hand, here I am itinerant and sleeping in roadside ditches with wild hair and smelly clothes. Most of the other touring cyclists that I came across look at me in askance and kept a wary distance and after a few of these awkward encounters I came to accept that my style of cycle touring isn’t necessarily the norm in these parts.

But it wasn’t all alienation.

I met a German guy living in a campervan when I was scouting about some abandoned railway station on a ViaVerde cycle route in Spain. When he realised that I was looking for somewhere dry to sleep he set up a tent for me and then we talked about meditation and travel and ate a meal together. In the morning he offered me the tent and when I declined on the grounds that it was too big for me to carry on my bike he rummaged around in his van until he found a smaller one. He had three tents, he said, and he’d bought this one for €30 at a super-market. If I didn’t like I could just dump it again. And so I took it.

I caught up with some old friends in Spain – friends I hadn’t seen in the 20 odd years since I was an aspiring young(ish) acrobat training in Barcelona and we were all living in a rather unglamorous squat in a uncompleted apartment block on the opposite side of the road from Parc Güell. The tourists used to stand up above us on the hill-top gazing down at the building’s outdoor terraces unaccountably distracted from the extravagantly adorned landscape they had come to admire by the banal doings of our daily life. Sonia and Alison have got married, and have an adopted child, and they live, without a constant audience now, in a small town to the north of Barcelona in a suburban house on a quarter acre block with a thriving vegetable garden. They have a dog and a cat and hope to add a foster child to their family soon.

Meeting Jan and Jan, a Dutch guy and a Canadian girl, who live in France and work in Switzerland, was a charmed, and charming, encounter courtesy of Warm Showers. I was regaled with good food, fine wine, a new inflatable sleeping mat, help and advice on bicycle maintenance, and exciting bicycling tales and left with renewed optimism and fortitude.

In the corner of France where it meets Germany and Switzerland, I visited a cousin. He and I are somewhat unlikely friends. We are within a week or two of being the same age but he was born and raised in the US and we’ve met less than half a dozen times in the course of our lives. He is a successful businessman, and has a family of girls just setting off to college back in the US, but somehow we share a taste in literature and an interest in discussing challenging ideas.

My friend, and an erstwhile cycle companion, Jeff, who I rode with – along with Jason, his brother, and Cass Gilbert – for several months in the US and Mexico back in 2009 and 2010, is also travelling around Europe on his bike. Jeff is generally accompanied by his family now but since his girlfriend and three year old son were attending family obligations in the UK we decided to ride together for a few days through the Black Forest and catch up on the last six years of life. We raced along the Danube, laughing and squabbling uproariously, in relentless torrential rain as the river steadily rose.

Germany seemed a marginally friendlier place than Spain and France. In a sodden park in Ulm, where Jeff and I were about to go our separate ways, a young man saw our bikes and approached us with a welcome offer of hospitality. We retired to this man’s flat to drink a nostalgic maté and I stayed the night after Jeff had boarded his bus to visit another friend in the north of the country.

Still in floods of rain, I continued north-east to the Czech Republic, which is the last country where I had a fixed address. First, I visited my friends, Nic and Mike, in their South Bohemian farmhouse where I still have half a dozen boxes of books and some stylish kitchen equipment stashed in the attic. Nic tends a vegetable garden and an unruly menagerie of domestic and farmyard animals as she slowly renovates the crumbling house and barns while Mike does something mysterious with computers in a closed room at the back of the house.

I sidestepped Prague and headed further north to see another friend as the end of my Schengen visa-free time hurtled towards me. It was here that all thoughts I had of maybe resurrecting my Czech life and settling down again faded away as if they had never occurred to me. With a day or two left to leave the Schengen area I rushed through Austria by train and bus and descended in Slovenia ready to ride into the unknown.

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dispatches from europe: france (via rhona)

The trouble with following rivers, I decide, standing astride my bike on the banks of the Rhône, somewhere a just little north of Lyon, is that you are always at the lowest point in the landscape. And, without a moment of subsequent regret, I turn my back on the river and abandon the ViaRhona.

But, actually, it isn’t just the topography, there are a few other things that mitigate against enjoyment of this cycle route that is being aggressively promoted in tourist information offices across France.

The ViaRhona cycle path is said to run all the way from Sète, on the Mediterranean coast, to Geneva, in the foothills of the Swiss Alps, loosely following the Rhône which flows through areas like the Camargue famed for natural beauty and such charming historic cities as Arles, Avignon, Valence, and Lyon. It looks convincing on paper and even somewhat tempting especially since, as I only have 90 visa-free days in the Schengen Zone, I am a little pushed for time.

However, the sad truth about the major rivers of Europe is that they are primarily industrial zones and transport routes, hemmed in by flood walls and tamed by countless locks, with hulking factories and power stations squatting gracelessly on their banks belching out menacing clouds of smoke and steam. But that said, industrial landscapes can have their own grimly impressive grandeur. So, no, the real problem with the ViaRhona lies elsewhere.

To explain properly, let me digress momentarily.

Once years ago when I lived in Prague and taught English, a student proudly announced in one of my classes, “We Czechs have beautiful mountains,… but…(sotto voce)… they are in Slovakia.” Now, the problem with the ViaRhona is similar. Everyone says, “We have a beautiful bike path along the Rhône, …(and then, sotto voce)…but we haven’t built it yet.” There is some fundamental failure here to grasp reality as it stands.

In many places even where it does, ostensibly, exist the ViaRhona runs alongside busy highways. Sometimes, only marginally better, it runs along the top of a dyke parallel to the river but more often than not without a view of the water. But then without the slightest warning, without shame, it can terminate, as it did at a point not long before I finally decided to abandon it, in three massive flights of stairs under a bridge. What kind of cycle path does that? And at the top of the stairs, nothing! Just a tangle of busy roads with not a signpost, not an arrow, not a hint, absolutely nothing. You’re on your own.

Forget it.

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dispatches from europe: france (the camargue)

Sitting in a seedy-ish cafe on the outskirts of Arles drinking coffee and recharging my camera and laptop batteries is a welcome moment of relaxation. It’s all go go go, my European cycle touring style. ‘Stealth’ camping in these densely populated unfriendly ‘developed’ countries requires late stops and early starts and cheap eating means bleak windy excuses for picnics.

And I’ve been sleeping out, tentless, next to mosquito infested canals. But I can’t begin to explain how much I like sleeping on the ground just any old where – wind, rain, mosquitos – all of it good when every time you turn over you can open your eyes to the sky above. It is the very best kind of home there is.

Yesterday, I cycled across the Camargue, a swampy wetland, which is France’s and possibly all of Europe’s biggest ‘wilderness’ area. All sea walls and dykes to stop winter floods, crawling with people and crossed in a couple of hours, it’s something of a sorry kind of wilderness, but despite all that it does remain a huge nesting area for birds migrating between African wintering sites and European summering areas.

A little ornithological park I visit seems more zoo than genuine wildlife reserve with a series of dreary cages housing birds of prey, stonily unblinking owls and aloof eagles, so still and expressionless that it’s hard to believe they are breathing. The storks and herons and egrets are that used to people I could get close enough to clearly see the downy young in the nests.

And thousands of flamingos. Whoever would have imagined flamingos in the south of France? Not me. But there they are and they even have a nesting colony which I see later in the day in the distance in a wilder more inaccessible part of the nature reserve. But these ones in the park are unfazed by people and I can see the pupils of their beady little yellow eyes. They are weird ungainly birds walking around with their heads underwater sucking up stuff like demented aquatic hoovers. They are at their best when they fly, normally at dawn or sunset, in those long v-shaped lines, honking in melancholic tones with their long legs trailing behind them.

An ornithologist in the nature reserve gives me chocolate biscuits and water and listens to my stories. He is convinced I must be world famous for the simple act of riding a bike here and there. I am charmed by his attentions, even though in the end he says he can’t offer me a room in the lighthouse – yes, a real lighthouse! – for the night because he isn’t single. I mean, really! Who does he think he is? There are so many things wrong with his statement I can’t even muster a sigh but cycle off into the wind scoured dunes to look for somewhere out of the way to sleep.

And so that is how this morning I woke to a real Van Gogh sunrise. Truly. The clouds were exactly like that. I don’t know if it is a Van Gogh painting that I’ve ever seen or even exists and maybe if I hadn’t been 20 km outside of Arles I wouldn’t have seen it that way at all. But the clouds were crazy pink swirly curly lines, visibly brush stokes, and the poplars trees were waving back and forth against the wild sky and the canal was right there.

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dispatches from europe: spain

Spain. Spring. The time of orange blossom and nightingales and rapidly changing weather.

I’m travelling hobo style, sleeping under bridges or creeping into the inadequate shelter of orange and olive groves. My tent and sleeping bag have fallen, via Australia Post, into the hands of the Spanish customs and no appeal to reason or compassion is capable of moving that authority, it seems.

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But the weeds flowering amongst the garbage on the verge may as well be a garden planted for my pleasure: red poppies, sunny dandelions, dog rose, and all those I cannot name, delicate arrangements of fragile purple and white stars, a scattering of tiny yellow pom-poms on spiky twigs.

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And if the highway is a torrent of fierce energy, a constant to and fro too fast to contemplate, old stones stand sentinel on the hills and a boarded up farmhouse stares across the valley as it has done for centuries. It gazes blindly back at an ancient hilltop town, the city walls guarding an empty heart given over now to sight-seers and souvenir sellers, a ghost town animated only by a group of fractious teenagers playing pakour on the historic monuments. (A youth hangs Christ-like from the metal railings above a wall, drops down to the pavement in front of a stolid señora brandishing a menacing umbrella. He strides across the road, measures up a pillar, scales it with a bound, steadies himself a moment and then leaps the gap, landing with only a minor adjustment. But by now I have passed this unfolding scene and the señora, too, has moved on, ambling up the road with her umbrella.)

Back in the hills, the wind mills are still here after all this time, multiplied and transformed by modern aerodynamic lines. They congregate on mountain ridges, like a row of crucifixes, the three pointed stars spinning atop their pedestals, waiting there for some new kind a martyr, for a reborn Don Quixote.

And everything arises from the same silence, the thundering trucks and the startled meadowlark singing in frantic ascent.

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I wonder, maybe, if Frans and Fans, the two old Dutchmen on bicycles I met this morning on a freezing mountain top, wreathed in sodden clouds, might have been some kind of angels with their improbable names and welcome gifts of coffee, cake and maps.

Now the sun shines brightly, lingering until almost 9 o’clock, and after a long twilight hour, the stars light up one by one gathering into constellations that swing wildly overhead all through the chill of the night as dew drops on my unprotected sleeping bag*.

 

*The alert reader will note that my real sleeping bag is actually in the hands of Spanish Customs along with my tent but my kind friend, Atma, who I was staying with in Forna, passed on an old one of hers that henceforth will be referred to as my sleeping bag until such a time as I may be reunited with what is really my sleeping bag.

 

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the blog

Hmmmm. Well, it’s been over a year since my last real post. The one where I packed up my bike and flew from Uruguay in South America back to Australia. That was in the beginning of March 2015 and now it’s mid-August 2016.*

A few things have happened since then. I spent a year without really riding my bike. There was six months in Australia where I did most of my general commuting around the various places I visited by bike but that was it. And then there was six months in Scotland where I didn’t really go anywhere at all.

But now I’m back on the bike in Bulgaria. Somehow or other the bike ended up a little south of Valencia, in an unassuming village called Forna, in Spain while I was in Scotland and so my European sojourn started there. Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of it – there’s no real reason why you should have – and I don’t really believe in beginnings or ends so it doesn’t really matter anyway. My current destination is Turkey and after that I’ve got a few plans but they’re not laid in stone yet.

So… it’s kind of old news by now, but let me state it publicly. I’m back on the bike.

In fact, I’ve been back on the bike since April. And now, it’s September. And since I got back on the bike I’ve been thinking about this blog, and blogs and blogging in general. I’m just media savvy enough to know that we are probably in a post-blog world by now. Blogs are old. It’s all about Twitter, Instagram, and things that I’ve never ever even heard of. So I’ve been wondering if I should continue to blog. Do people read blogs anymore? And what are blogs for anyway?

I suppose I should also mention that I’ve never really had a clear idea of what this blog is about. I’ve got a few ideas of what it’s not about. It’s not about cycling, exactly. And I don’t think that it really is a travel blog. I would hate for it to be primarily about me. So what is it about?

It’s a question that dogs me and I don’t know the answer. So, if anyone reads this — and there really isn’t much reason to suspect that I have a huge audience just waiting for me to upload another post after all this time — but nonetheless, if anyone reads this, maybe you could give me a hint as to what you think this blog is about?

But actually, it’s more fundamental than that – I’ve even been wondering about photos and the nature of the whole photographic enterprise. I’ve been pondering the place of images in society. The rise of selfies. All those visual updates of everyone’s every move. And I’ve been asking myself, do I want to be part of all that?

I’ve been on a bit of a photographic strike and I’ve only gotten out my camera half a dozen times or so since April. It’s a bit annoying really because I’m carrying a DSLR at the moment and a couple of lenses and that’s a hefty load for someone who’s not taking photos. There was a mountain pass somewhere early on, in Spain, where I thought, “I should just dump all this electronic stuff on the side of the road!” But I didn’t. It all cost good money and now that I don’t earn good money there would be no way to replace it if I changed my mind later.

But it’s a thought that I can’t quite shake.

Maybe I really should dump all this electronic stuff by the side of the road.

 

*Since I have now decided to continue blogging, to keep the time line more of less intelligible, I’ve backdated this post and I’ll date subsequent posts to more of less reflect the date when the various incidents and anecdotes took place.

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