The Austrians seem a very sober people and many of their villages and towns have a solidly unflamboyant - frankly, dull - appearance. So this risqué garden ornament in Bad Radiersberg fairly jumped out at me. And that's the only reason I post it here.
From Maribor I travelled west along the river Drava, which meanders through alpine foothills parallel to the Austrian border for 70km before entering Austria just north of Dravograd. I knew that the road would have no significant hills (that's why I chose it, he he), but I also guessed it would be a fairly busy one, for that reason. And so it was. It was also one of the worst weather days of the trip - unremitting rain all day. The spray from the traffic meant my glasses were never clear for more than 30 seconds and when the light started to fade things got a little too hairy for my liking. The numerous signs warning of accident blackspots didn't relieve the anxiety. At one point I was able to switch to a path on the other side of the river, virtually traffic-free and with more ups and downs, a total contrast to the busy opposite bank. In a remote bend In this road I came across a house that looked like it hadn't changed since the 1920s. As I took a photo an old woman came out to get some firewood from the shed. She was also dressed from 1920s rural central Europe and could easily have been over 90. As she struggled back with the wood I wondered what kind of life she must lead and wished my language skills included conversational Slovenian.
Going back a few days, to Slovenia: at my stop in Maribor I couldn't resist buying this pamphlet, spotted in a local antiquarian book shop (€7). It's from the early 1960s and the cover, roughly translated, says "Cyclist! You're not the only one on the road!" It gives basic tuition on how to behave on two wheels and strikes a quaintly patronising tone, from the time when bikes were seen more as a nuisance than a positive (they still are in many places, of course). It also has a gruesome illustrated section on dealing with the injuries caused by accidents with cars, which seems to me more to the point.
On my third day cycling the Berlin wall trail (which is a circular route of about 180km around the former border of West Berlin, in case I didn't mention it before), I came to the south-west of the city, in the area around Potsdam, home of the kaisers, a place of lakes and forests and very many castles and palaces. Potsdam is where Churchill, Truman and Stalin settled the post-war division of Germany and then became the headquarters of the Russian presence in East Germany. It still has a strong whiff of the Cold War about it. I crossed the Glienicke bridge, which was used for spy exhanges, then passed the former KGB prison below, which is being turned into a museum. Later I passed some 19th C barracks buildings that were occupied by red army troops after the war and vacated by them only in 1994. They are locked up and awaiting conversion into luxury flats, but I found a way into one of the buildings and discovered lots of Russian graffiti left by the soldiers.
Berlin is one of the world's greatest cities, endlessly fascinating and photogenic. It's a major capital in the world of street art, no surprise when the West Berliners had all that bare concrete wall to encourage them. This spontaneous public art form is one of my favourite photographic subjects and it's going to be difficult to avoid being distracted from my real task by examples such as this, near Schlesischestrasse in Kreuzburg.
So I arrived in Berlin central station on Friday in mid-afternoon and was met with warm friendliness by Jörg, the friend of a friend in Brussels, who is putting me up for a couple of days. I then used the rest of the fading daylight to begin the Berlin wall cycle trail, which follows the route of the ex-enclosure around West Berlin very closely. There will be much of interest on the way, of course. Yards from the station is this memorial to the wall's first victim - Günter Litfin, a tailor who was shot by East German border guards as he tried to escape to the west by swimming across a canal, shortly after the first reels of barbed wire had gone up.
I love the idea and practice of train travel but my 5-leg, 23-hr marathon from Trieste to Berlin started to test my faith. First, buying the ticket in Trieste: mentioning that I needed to transport a bike provoked such a bout of teeth-sucking that it was as though I'd said I was taking an elephant along. It was possible to reserve a place for the bike in the overnight train from Milan to Frankfurt if I bought myself a seat, but not if I reserved a couchette (???). Buying the Frankfurt-Berlin portion in Italy meant I paid €25 more than if I'd bought it separately in Germany. The night train was 30 mins late into Frankfurt and this meant I missed my connection, but I got to Berlin earlier because there was a better connection that the Italian computer hadn't revealed. Or, rather, I would have got there earlier if that train hadn't been delayed as well. The conductor said bikes weren't allowed on until I showed an itinerary printout from the travel centre and suddenly she pointed to the end of the train, where there was a dedicated and empty bike carriage (???). On the plus side, the journey gave me my first fleeting visits to Milan, Frankfurt and Leipzig (which has one of the biggest and loveliest stations I've seen). On the way from Frankfurt we passed a ruined castle that I recognised; I realised that we were crossing the old east-west border and going through a village I'd stayed in. It felt like that had been months previously but in fact was only a few weeks. Eventually I ended up with this view of the approach to Berlin, thanks to a transparent German train.
And that's it! I am sitting on a train from Trieste to Venice, the first leg of a 23-hr journey to Berlin for the finale of my trip. Earlier today I crossed one last border, where Slovenia and Italy meet on the Adriatic coast. No memorials, no statues, nothing to hint at any significance of the location. Just a standard border marker looking out to sea. More thoughts and reflections to come later, I hope, plus more backlog posts. But right now I'm going to enjoy my first daytime doze in nearly seven weeks, in a warm carriage, sheltered from the sheeting rain outside.
I am almost at my goal. I am in the Slovenian port of Koper and once this post is done I will pack the bike and ride the short distance around the coast road towards Trieste. On the way I will pass the Slovene-Italian border and thus the place where the iron curtain entered the Adriatic. I had meant to pass here on my way to Koper from Trieste yesterday but didn't have the time.
I woke up to a rainy Trieste, went to book my train ticket to Berlin, and had a look around the town, which is a bit shabby and well past its glory days of 100 years ago. I then left for Koper via the Carso/Kras/Karst (Italian/Slovene/German), a high limestone plateau 400m above the Triestine riviera that forms the city's hinterland. It was another major battlefield in the first world war. This meant a big climb through the suburbs of Trieste, roughly up the hill starting at the top-left of the 3-D city model below. It took me along probably the steepest road of the whole trip and a forced dismount and push. Half-way up the section I slipped on the manhole at bottom-left of the second photo and fell to my knees with a crunch that has left me with two nice bruises (but luckily nothing worse). But when I finally got to the top I was rewarded with a break in the rain and a great view of the bay.
In Koper I met up with Gregor Belič, a contact I met last year in Brussels airport when our plane was delayed. Gregor is a ship's captain and involved in expanding Koper's port, and I knew he'd have interesting things to tell me about life near the border. Too many to mention in this post - again, they'll have to wait until later! Gregor took me to a superb seafood restaurant in Koper - a place whose visitors' book includes Eric Clapton, Robert Plant, Deep Purple, REM and Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull. It was the best meal of the trip and a great way to end the last evening of my ride.