I left Bleiburg, Austria, on Saturday with a light hangover and the Alps to cross. I stopped at Eisenkapell, a spa town at the foot of the steepest section leading to the 1216m Seeberg pass into Slovenia, for some sustenance before the climb. As I munched a schnitzel sandwich I noticed a broken spoke on my rear wheel. I wasn't sure whether or how quickly the wheel would deform but with no bike shops anywhere near I decided to press on. To take my mind off the effort I began an imaginary conversation with myself about what I would find at the pass. My sceptical side said there wouldn't be anything, but my imaginary interlocutor laughed derisively and predicted at least two monuments or memorials of some kind. Yes, after six weeks on the road this is the mental state I've reached: one spoke short of a trued wheel in more ways than one. In any case I thought it was a pointless conversation because it would be dark by the time I arrived and whatever was there would not yield to my cameras. But to my surprise I made it to the top without really breaking a sweat and quicker than planned. I was helped by the road, superbly designed to keep a steady bike-friendly gradient. Civil engineering rules OK again. The quick ascent had a huge positive psychological effect and carried me on another 60km in the dark to an overnight stop in Radovljica. The first 20km was a glorious downhill following a cascading mountain stream whose white water i could make out in the moonlight. There turned out to be nothing at the pass but border markers and two small border control offices (redundant and abandoned, of course, like all the others I've passed through on this trip). On the way up, at a cluster of mainly abandoned houses called Vellach, on one of the bends in the road below, I met Ignaz Wutte, who described himself as the last Austrian. He lives alone in the most southerly inhabited house in the country, a few hundred yards from the pass. He was walking a fierce Dobermann that definitely wanted a piece of me, but was himself a placid and friendly character. Relations with Slovenians over the hill were good, he said.
I just couldn't rise to it yesterday, despite more good weather and generally friendly terrain. Right from the off it was a struggle to push the pedals over. I didn't help myself by not eating anything but chocolate bars between breakfast and 5 o'clock, when I entered Austria again and found somewhere selling sandwiches. I had spent most of the day riding along the Hungarian side of the border through quiet villages offering nowhere to eat. A lot of the time on this trip I've used the central European penchant for ham and cheese breakfasts (I still can't get used to them) to prepare lunchtime sandwiches. But yesterday that didn't come off.
It's said that Hungarians are a melancholy people (and have a suicide rate to match). This is supposed to date from the 1920s, when in the post-war Trianon treaty they lost huge amounts of territory to today's Romania, Slovakia and Croatia. Yesterday I felt a little of that melancholy had rubbed off onto me. Perhaps it was the prospect of a long day's cycle with little chance of picking up interesting material, perhaps it was the autumn sun low in the sky, but I felt a little down. But then I spotted a sign announcing an iron curtain museum in a village a few km further down my route. This was unexpected. I have been using some preliminary notes prepared for the Hungarian section of the "Iron Curtain trail", a bike route being organized by, among others, Michael Cramer, the MEP I mentioned in an earlier post. Unlike the notes for the Czech section, these make almost no mention of the iron curtain itself in Hungary. Almost unbelievably, the route apparently doesn't even go to Sopron and the site of the pan-European picnic, where there is much to see. And this museum I was about to reach isn't mentioned either. As I got closer to the village I noticed that the museum signs were associated with signs for a restaurant and I wondered whether the "museum" wasn't going to be some cod recreation of the iron curtain built to bring the customers in. I wasn't far wrong. It was a chaotic jumble of home-made artefacts built in a back garden, arranged on a slope alongside vines and apple trees, and contained almost nothing original as far as I could tell, though it was indeed right by the border. It looked like the typical product of a lone eccentric, in this case Sándor Goják, who served as a border guard in the1960s and, said some information panels, wanted to create a memorial to those who suffered under 40 years of communism in Hungary. But I wondered if the purpose wasn't to expiate some deeper personal guilt at having been part of the system. I couldn't find out because, though the garden gate and museum were open, Sándor's house (and restaurant terrace) was locked up and empty. Somehow the visit made me sadder than before.
It's nearly 9am and I woke up in Köszeg, Hungary, to the news that Obama will be president. And to the knowledge that I have to do a lot of miles today to keep on a reasonable schedule. My weekend break in Bratislava was enjoyable but was over almost before it began, and definitely before I'd fully relaxed. And the southerly wind was still there waiting for me on Monday, making the path through the lonely plains of eastern Austria a hard one. I stayed overnight in Sopron, a town situated in a bulb-shaped piece of Hungarian territory, surrounded on all sides by Austria. In the morning I went north to the place on the border where in August 1989 a peace rally called the pan-European picnic led to several hundred East German refugees breaking through into Austria. The event precipitated the revolutions later in the autumn. There was so much of interest there that I got back to Sopron and away southwards too late to make the intended distance. Today I wanted to reach Maribor in Slovenia but that's probably 130km away and to have a realistic chance I should probably have set out two hours ago. We'll see. I'm having to adjust to a new outlook on the project. Until Bratislava I have been able to communicate to varying extents with locals in their own language on either side of the border. Now, in Hungary, that's no longer the case. At the same time, there is even less in the way of border remains and the "Iron Curtain" was a less tangible concept than in Germany or Czechoslovakia. So it will be harder to document. On the plus side, the weather is still being kind to me (it's extraordinarily warm) and the Alps haven't hit yet. I'm planning a route that will take me over two alpine passes - enough to be authentic but hopefully not too much to break my legs - while cycling along river valleys skirting borders the rest of the time.
Yesterday was supposed to be one of the most enjoyable days on my itinerary, but it turned into one of the most painful. First the good news: I am in Bratislava, Slovakia, looking forward to a restful weekend with friends. I lived here for just over three years in the mid-1990s and always enjoy coming back. Bratislava lies on the western edge of Slovakia and the Iron Curtain ran along its western and southern suburbs. It was my time here that ultimately inspired what I'm doing now. I'm staying with Jozef and Anna, my Slovak 'mum and dad', parents of my friend Jana. Time to recharge and stock up before the final leg of the journey, around and over the Alps to Trieste.
I got awaz from Poysdorf in Austria yesterday at 9 in fair weather and headed east for 20km through vineyard country to Hohenau on the Slovak border. I soon felt a solid southerly breeze pressing at my right side and knew that once I crossed the border I would be turning into it as I swung south towards Bratislava. And so it was: for the next 90km I had an almost constant headwind that didn't let up even after the sun went down. I rate headwinds on a par with uphills and cobbles (and kolonnenweg) as the cyclist's worst enemy. Thankfully, at least, I was on the flat all day, following the floodplain of the river Morava, which forms the Austrian-Slovak border for 60km or so before flowing into the Danube at Bratislava. And there was no rain.
Before the full force of the wind hit me I was confident I would make it in light to the suburb of Devinska Nova Ves, to photograph the only remaining official section of the iron curtain fencing in Slovakia and to talk to some locals, and then to nearby Devin castle, where Queen Elizabeth II unveiled a statue commemorating the Iron Curtain just a few days ago. Even with the wind, which I reckon reduced my average speed by about 10km/h, I thought I had a good chance if I motored on. But with the sun falling towards the horizon I came to a junction in the network of lonely paths through the plain, and though my map told me to turn right, there was no sign to do so on what had otherwise been a well-marked cycling route. I should have trusted the map; instead I carried straight on and after a few kilos came to a dead-end: a water management installation at the end of a dyke that was topped with - I nearly fell off my saddle - kolonnenweg blocks. I thought I'd left those behind in Germany. I thought about ploughing through some fields or along the dyke to join where the path should be, but decided simply to retrace my steps and accept the lost time. I wouldn't make the fences or statue but there was a nice sunset forming and I could at least use that, I thought. That was until I was stopped again, this time by a huge willow tree felled by the wind and lying across the path like a fence at the Grand National. There were ditches either side of the path so there was no option but to take the panniers off and struggle over the boughs and branches, which formed a barrier over a metre high and a couple of metres long. At the end of a hard day's cycling it was an exhausting task. As I struggled over, odd consolations came to me: I had failed to make the two interest points of the day before dark, but I was pleased with myself for knowing the tree was a willow, and for knowing the word for willow in Slovak.
I arrived at the fences in the dark, with just a dying glow of light low in the western sky. I shone my bicycle lights on the barbed wire to get a photo of sorts, and actually the result is quite atmospheric. And I'll probably visit Devin castle and the statue at some point over the weekend. I limped into Bratislava city centre after 115km in the day and briefly thought about cycling the last 15km to Jozef and Anna's before folding the bike into a taxi.
On the plus side, I managed 90km in daylight from 9 to 5 in tough conditions (the wind was like riding uphill all day), and that bodes well for the last section of the trip. And the first person I met over the border in Slovakia had an interesting story to tell - he had grown up near the fences and his family had a hard time under the communist regime because his father was an "unreliable": he had tried to escape to Austria in the 1950s but had been caught by the Russians (still present at that time) and was jailed for four-and-a-half years.
It's nearly 8.30 in the morning and I'm about to leave Poysdorf in Austria, heading for Bratislava, Slovakia's capital. I arrived here after my longest daily distance so far, 115km, including a final nocturnal 55km in just under three hours. I got to Poysdorf too tired to do anything but eat and fall into bed.
Earlier I spent too much time looking for the spot below. It's a beech tree right on the Czech-Austrian border (note marker in background) where border soldiers used to carve the number of days' service remaining before they could go home. Later I came to the only place in the Czech Republic where the iron curtain has been officially preserved, at Čížov in the Podyjí national park. But I came away from it a little disillusioned: it's a sterile monument, not as interesting as the unofficial remnants elsewhere (as I suspected at the time, the dilapidated tower pictured a few posts ago has proved the best find of the Czech section of the curtain). And in any case I have plenty of rusting barbed wire shots. I reflected that I hadn't talked to locals for a while and knew this was because I was concentrating on making distances. So I was glad, then, that a couple of villages later I met a couple of likely old lads by the roadside who had some interesting things to say. One of them was separated from his father in Ireland for nearly 20 years by the Iron Curtain: every year he applied for permission to go and visit, every year he was refused, until 1988, the year before the fences came down.
OK, I've another long day ahead, I must go. The people who run the software for this blog seem to be having technical difficulties, so I don't know how often I'll be able to update from now on.
I'm afraid my further-than-expected distance performance and the accordion-inspired euphoria of Bad Grosspertholz induced a bit of complacency over the next couple of days and I'm lagging a little again behind my (revised) schedule. I'm in Drosendorf, Austria, and face two mammoth days of distance if I'm to make it to Bratislava in Slovakia by Friday evening. I'm planning two days of rest with friends there. But at least the journey there will be downhill or flat and the weather is set fair again. The last couple of days have been dull and yesterday the air was filled all day with that kind of rain that hangs with really dropping, so the peak of my cap was no help in keeping my glasses clear. During the day I visited Návary, a Czech village where the Iron Curtain has been preserved as part of a cattle enclosure, including an original gate that would have been manned by border guards.
The pic below has nothing whatsoever to do with the Iron Curtain, but no one can resist a bit of colour and it gives me an excuse to digress to the subject of photography.
First I want to acknowledge a photographic inspiration behind the trip, and that is the American photographer Brian Rose, whose book The Lost Border was one of the first I found when doing my research. Brian did a similar journey along the Iron Curtain in the 1980s and his medium-format photos of how the border looked at the time are excellent. The book also includes many post-1989 photos. Brian has also given some good advice and encouragement for my own trip. Through his book I also discovered Anthony Bailey, an English writer who travelled along the curtain in the early 1980s. His account, Along the Edge of the Forest, is superb. The book is out of print but deserves a reissue with the 20th anniversary next year. I got my copy in an Internet second-hand bookshop and - what a good omen - it turned out to be a signed one.
All the photos in this blog are taken with my iPhone. This is a miraculous device in many ways but its camera is remarkably primitive. I thought this would be frustrating but actually it's been refreshing to have to create good shots with a fixed-focal-length lens and no focusing or exposure control.
My real photos (which I hope will get a public airing at some point - photo gallery owners apply here) have been taken with three cameras. For gear nerds, they are: Canon G9 compact digital (permanently dangling around my neck while riding, used for vast bulk of pics), Canon 450D SLR + 10-22mm and 17-85mm lenses (for when I have time and energy to get serious or arty, kept in my handlebar bag, hasn't been out as much as I'd planned) and Ricoh GR-1 fixed 28mm film compact (for backup and moments when only film will do; virtually unused, unfortunately).
With a couple of exceptions, there aren't many people pics in this blog. I have met lots of interesting people along the way and have phptographed nearly all of them. But usually I've exhausted their posing patience with my other cameras to feel comfortable then pulling the iPhone out.
This temporary roadside exhibition of painted silage bales just outside Bad Grosspertholz brightened up a grey morning. A few minutes later I clocked up my 2000th kilometre of the trip.
View to south-west from a former military watchtower on the edge of the Šumava national park, near Vyšší Brod. I don't know how it will look on your monitor but you might be able to see the Austrian alps in the distance. The border with Austria runs through the trees in the foreground.
So much to blog, so little time. I'm grabbing a quick lunch in a little Czech town called Vyšší Brod and face another hour or three of night riding later today. After the clocks went back on Sunday I'm under even more pressure to get up and away early each day, and I'm now struggling to make the daily mileage while stopping to gather material and then writing it up in the evenings in notes and this blog. There is a lot that will have to wait until later. I have spent the last three days tracking the old iron curtain through the Šumava national park, of the Czech Republic's biggest, and have been blessed by [insert your preferred higher power here] with a three-day inversion that has brought out the sun cream for those of us above 1000 meters while in the valleys there's mist. Yesterday, Sunday, I got a good view of the Alps that I must cross later in the trip. And as if I don't have enough to worry about, I also had to negotiate an apparent minefield in the middle of the park. On Saturday I worked my way up to 1200m and yesterday spent most of that coming down to 800m, including an amazing 30k level stretch along the Schwarzemberg canal, an 18th century timber-transporting waterway never more than 5 feet across that snakes around the hills and across the border between the Czech Rep and Austria (for that is how far I am now along the itinerary. The day was spoilt only by difficulties getting accommodation as I arrived exhausted into a Czech village at the end of the canal. Some definite cultural differences remaining across the old iron curtain on this point. I must expand later.