London to Transylvania – cultivating the art of travel

As Greta Thunberg pointed out earlier this year, we need to use planes less and trains more. So how would I get on going to Transylvania by train instead of plane?

Booking:

Booking was actually a bit of a pain.

Sites like loco2 and thetrainline may have clever algorythms to show cheap or quick routes, but when travelling this far, the quality of the journey matters and that requires human judgement. This is where the Man in Seat 61 comes into his own. Based on one of his suggested routes, I split my journey into three parts.

Part 1: London to Munich – the pleasures of first class travel

For the first part I caught the Eurostar to Brussels and then German ICE to Munich changing at Stuttgart. With a price difference of £30 between first and second class, it was a no-brainer to go first class and sit with the other half spending the journey eating well, sipping chilled wine and watching Europe pass by in a bit of style.

Arriving into Munich at 9pm, I had a couple of hours to wander down Neuhauser Strasse and mix with the crowds enjoying a sultry evening out.

It had taken all day to get here and if I was on business, I would have been able to work productively for the whole journey. As for the price, I paid £169 which is a lot more than a budget airline early flight. But when you start looking to set off at a civilised hour, the prices are similar.

I can’t imagining flying this distance again – it will be the train every time.

Part 2: Munich to Budapest – a squash and a squeeze

Eager to push on further towards the Balkans, I caught the sleeper train to Budapest. After a day of first-class travel, it was now time for me to have a second-class sleep, literally and metaphorically.

I was the first to get in to the €79 couchette – a little compartment with four benches that had been flipped down to become beds. Then in came a middle-aged man. We grunted acknowledgement before doing our bedtime prep – in my case, delving to the bottom of my bag for a toothbrush.

Then the door opened and in came the biggest suitcase I had ever seen. After some puffing and panting, in popped a head followed by the rest of the body. The young guy who owned the mega-case looked around and unsurprisingly, realised it was far too big to go anywhere. Undeterred, he gave the case another shove and the room was now full. Then in came the pram, carrycot with a freshly-born baby in it and last, but by no means least, the haggard new mum.

It was at this point I realised the value of literature. The tome in question, A Squash and a Squeeze by Julia Donaldson tells the tale of an old woman who complained that her house was too small. A wise man told her to bring in all her farmyard animals and then she realised how big it had been in the first place.

I had now resigned myself to sleep deprivation and just putting this journey down to experience.

However the other middle-aged man, who we’ll now call Mr Grumpy was a man of action and complained to the Hungarian train guard. He tried to explain what was wrong in German. The wife then chatted to the guard in Hungarian. He look at Mr Grumpy, shrugged and walked away.

Within a few minutes of the lights going out, I heard an odd rustling and then a thin bluish of light emanated from the opposite bunk. It was the light of a computer screen. The dad had decided to start watching a film on his laptop, while eating the remains of a Burger King meal and using a pack of Pampers as a pillow. Incredibly, the others were already asleep and Mr Grumpy was even snoring.

In the nicest possible way I told the dad that there were some seats further down the train he could go and sit in if he didn’t want to go to sleep. He shut the lid, stashed the remnants of his meal by his pampers pillow and perhaps we could all now get some sleep.

I must have dozed off but woke up feeling like I was in an airless sauna. We had stopped at Salzburg for a two hour wait and all power was off, which meant the ‘aircon’ was off. When it had been on, the baby stuff piled on top of it had limited it to a waft of not-so-hot air. Even that now would have been wonderful.

I got up and spent the two hour stop looking out of the window at a rather boring station.

At 7 o’clock Mr Grumpy left and with all hope of sleep gone, the family and I spend the rest of the journey talking about stuff.

Stuff, in their case meant talking about baby and dad meeting the grandparents/in-laws for the first time.

In my case, it meant talking about how nice it is when kids are grown up and you can leave them at home.

As the train’s brakes squeeled and we pulled into Budapest, I realised that this had been travelling. Being thrown together with other people in a smaller space than you would choose for a bit longer than you would like – and loving it? Well, at least not hating it.

One of the pleasures of train travel is being able to stop off at places on the way. I wanted to go and see Budapest’s Seventh District and and also get a good night’s sleep. So, I checked into a boat-hotel on the Danube that was moored up opposite the Parliament.

Being in Budapest also gave me a chance to learn more about Transylvania, my ultimate desination. How so?

In 1920, Hungary was carved up under the Treaty of Triannon and Transylvania was award to Romania. The complex history of this area still hits raw nerves so I used my train-free day to learn more from the other side of the border by visting a good bookshop and talking to the very nice people working there.

Part 3: Budapest to Sibiu – meeting like-minded souls

After my day in Budapest, I spent the evening sipping Tokej and watching a firework display from the boat’s deck.

Then, it was time to think about actually getting to Romania. I booked myself on to sleeper to Sibiu in Transylvania for €49.

This time, I was sharing with two other middle-aged blokes, one Swiss, the other Canadian and both teachers. They were using the free time that summer holidays (and understanding families) provide to do some exploring by themselves.

The Swiss guy had tried taking his two sons interrailing the previous year, but they preferred being at home with their friends and smartphones. So with an accommodating wife and two relieved kids at home, he was free to do some wandering through the Carpathians.

The Canadian guy was due to travel round Spain with some friends in a couple of weeks but before that he wanted to do the ‘Orient Express’ and travel to Istanbul by himself.

After a decent night’s sleep in a cool and comfortable bed, I got up and watched Transylvania slowly trundle past the window with my two new pals.

‘You know’ said the Swiss guy, ‘I had some walking routes planned, but seeing this – perhaps I’ll just set off from the station and see where I end up.’

The art of arrival?

Stepping onto the platform at Sibiu, it felt like I had come a long way, which at a Romanian train’s pace, I suppose I had. But as I walked up Strada General Magheru, I had little flashbacks of the places I had been and the people I had met.

If I had come by plane, I would have saved time and money, so why did I feel richer?

Train vs plane

Flying me to Transylvania would have put about 160 KG of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. By taking the train I consumed about 30 KG. That saving had come at a quite a price.

I had spent nearly £300 as opposed to around £50 to catch a plane. Airlines are subsidised as they don’t pay tax on fuel and won’t have to pay for the environmental damage caused by the additional CO2 in the atmosphere.

But it had taken me days to get here and it wasn’t easy to plan. For all the efforts of sites like loco2, organising train travel is harder than by plane. This is in part because so many places are connected directly by plane, but also because algorithms that try to plan multi-stage journeys are good at time and cost but lousy at quality of the experience.

While tech struggles to produce high quality routes, it can help with your time on the train. Train travel to places that are several days away could be filled with films and things to pass the time but why ‘pass’ it when the journey could be one of the best bits of your time away. Technology can help with this. Eurostar’s Odyssey shows that journey’s can be contexualised. Perhaps the next big thing will be apps that guide us through rather than to places.

What train travel really offered was the ability to stop. In my case, it was seeing something in Budapest, but there were plenty of alternatives and in each case, the train would have pulled up into the heart of the town or city and not some out of the way airport.

What the train also offered was the opportunity to spend time a lot of time with other people. This could be a great experience or an ‘experience’…

But my enjoyment was in large measure down to my attitute to what fate had delivered. Poor Mr Grumpy.

In any event, I learned that travelling well is an art, and one that’s worth practising.

Do Budapest’s Ruin Bars help Ruin Liberalism?

I love Budapest’s ruin bars and in particular, Szimpla Kert, the oldest and arguably finest example.

Converting a dilapidated old factory into a hip bar isn’t anything new. But the idea of renovation by making everything worse is.

Arguably, the apparent ruin is more of a trompe l’oeil. The buildings are structurally sound and filled with greenery, quirky art and every surface is available for you to leave your own mark.

And what’s particularly appealing is that the alternative approach isn’t just skin deep. With a farmers’ market and shop, sustainable urban living is being actively promoted. You can even buy yourself a Victor Orban candle to burn.

So what’s the problem?

It was my second time in the place that I noticed something not quite right.

On my first visit, I had been looking at the place. Now I was used to it, I started looking at the people in it. They all had something in common. I confirmed my suspicions when I spoken to a member of staff. Just about everyone was a tourist. Locals go to the more conventionally decorated Kisüzem.

Everyone, like me goes home with the impression that despite all the talk of Hungary being an illiberal state, it’s actually fine and you can be who you like – perhaps living around the corner in a secessionist apartment with flaky paint and high ceilings.

It’s a wider problem with Budapest’s Seventh District, the old Jewish quarter. The graffiti, buildings covered in stickers, vegan street food and an air of ‘anything goes’ might be a pull for some but shows a nervous local population that anything could happen without the guidance of the current regime.

So should ruin bars close?

Of course not. But visitors should not be allowed to come away with a feeling that all is OK when it isn’t. Perhaps first drinks should be free but only if you can give three examples of why the EU Parliament is seeking to apply sanctions.

However, there is an alternative. Go to Szimpla’s sister bar in Berlin.

The sundial that became a moral compass

“Lay me quietly in the earth, place a sun-dial over my grave, and let me be forgotten.”

– John Howard, on his deathbed January 1790

How do you memorialise someone who should be remembered, but has explicitly said they don’t want a memorial?

For the creators of the memorial to John Howard in Kherson, Ukraine, the solution was to take his dying words literally.

John Howard was a curious chap, as Tessa West observed in her biography. As a single-mined man of means, who today may well have had Asperger’s Syndrome, he was the Greta Thunberg of his day. Shaped by his own experiences of incarceration at the hands of the French, once he was in a position of authority in Bedford, UK, he set about inspecting the local prison. What he found was not only squalid, but dysfunctional. The state did not pay prison warders, so they had to make their money from the inmates, which created a cycle of debt and misery.

After coming up with some practical solutions, which could be applied to both prisons and hospitals, he published his findings. They became a bestseller and this spurred him on to set off around Europe knocking on the doors of prisons and telling the local bigwigs what he thought.

But rather than alienating himself, he seems to have been become something of a celebrity. This may have had as much to do with his reputation of also being a brilliant, albeit self-taught, doctor and was asked to help cure the sick while he was in the area.

Eventually his travels took him to Kherson in the new Russian lands where he finally contracted gaol fever (typhus) and died. The funeral was grand, as was his grave and ultimately his sundial memorial, which was built a couple of decades later.

Having been restored in 1990, the sundial has been maintained pretty well which, given the difficult times Ukraine has been through, is a mark of how it is valued.

So what possible use has a sundial now – they were out-of-date even when the memorial was built?

For anyone who likes their time-pieces to have features, this comes well-stacked. First, it is two sundials for the price of one, as the monument is an obelisk with a circular wall which is great for those who like precision or perhaps anyone who happened to be passing by in a newly invented hot-air balloon.

Second it is adorned with a nice picture of a slightly grumpy gilded John Howard.

Third, it comes with a number of inspirational mottoes.

  • ‘Alios salvos fecit’ (He saved others)
  • ‘Vixit propter alios’ (He lived for others)
  • It also says in Russian ‘Rest in peace, People’s friend’.

On my visit it also had two red carnations from an unknown admirer.

But there is one final feature. After visiting it, you become sensitised to other thoughtful monuments.

In Slavy Park, amongst all the heroic Soviet stuff, two memorials stand out despite being rather hidden away. Who could walk past the suffering of this mother who, presumably lost her son in Afghanistan and now seeks solace in religion without a twinge of sympathy?

And who could see this monument to the Chernobyl catastrophe and not just remember their sacrifice, but also that we are all part of the same world.

Back in the UK, John Howard’s wish to not be remembered has also been ignored. Here he is in Bedford.

He seems to be thinking a lot about something.

In his shoes, I’d be thinking why am I standing on top of a bunch of cherubic kids playing around with theatrical Greek comedy masks?

This makes more sense when you know that the statue was created by Gilbert Allen who also designed the Statue of Eros in London’s theatre district. So in one way this is more in line with John Howard’s wish. It isn’t really a monument to him or his life’s work and, judging by the people walking past, he has well and truly been forgotten.

He should also be satisfied that in nearby Cardington, there is little clue that this was where he lived. However, this may be because his works have been overshadowed by a more recent event. A clue is in the village sign with the big grey sausage in the sky. The R101 airship was housed nearby and after it crashed in France in 1930, the 36 who died were buried here in the graveyard.

However, John Howard has left a legacy here which you can still see today.

A set of cottages which he had built to a high standard made sure that locals could live decently. He charged the going rate in rent which covered the cost of repairs and maintenance. He used his wealth to create the conditions for decent living, but it was then up to the people themselves to keep up to it.

As for his former home, there is little to signify who once lived here other than it being called Howard House.

But Howard’s name does live on in a more significant way through the charities that have been established to promote better prison conditions, such as the Howard League for Penal Reform.

One mystery remains. Why did he want a sundial placed over his body?

Was there a sundial in that garden? Was he trying to recreate a little piece of his home in this distant land? Or was he just expressing his exasperation at local timekeeping.

We will never know.

What we do know is that one person can make a big difference, on issues that might at first seem unimportant to the rich and powerful.

We also know that no-one in Kherson has an excuse for being late because they don’t know the time – as long as it’s sunny.

re-learning Swedish in the Ukraine

Four times a week, in the village of Gammalsvenskby in Southern Ukraine, villagers of all ages gather together at the end of the school day. It’s time for their next Swedish lesson. Why?

The clue is in the village’s name:

Gammal – old, svensk – swedish, by – village

Gammalsvenskby is an old Swedish village.

240 years ago, as the Russian Empire expanded southward into Ottoman territories, settlers were needed to populate the newly conquered lands, known as Novorossiya or New Russia.

One group ready to move was the thousand-strong Swedish speaking population of Dagö, an island in modern-day Estonia, who were in dispute with their landlord. The long journey south was arduous and half of them died en-route. Cultivating the new lands was difficult and within two years the population was down to 136, but they recovered and made a prosperous village.

The Bolshevik Revolution, civil war, famine, purges and finally the Second World War decimated the village. Most villagers who could leave, went ‘back’ to Sweden or on further to Canada but a few stayed on. Now there are only three ladies left for whom Swedish is a first language, but a new generation of Swedish speakers are emerging. I went to the school to meet their teacher Larisa and some of her students.

I wanted to talk to them about why they were spending their free time learning Swedish. Although Larisa speaks very good English, she was clearly determined to do the best by her students and made sure this was going to be a lesson. Of course we could all talk, but we would do it in Swedish …

I know some basic Swedish, thanks to my other half and her relatives, but now I was in at the deep-end and wondered if I’d be thrown enough linguistic buoyancy aids to ‘swim’.

But I needn’t have worried. With help from Larisa and the patience of everyone, we had a pretty good chat.

My new classmates…

So why are my new fellow classmates learning Swedish? For one 15-year-old girl, it was clear, she wanted to do broaden her horizons and travel to Sweden to study and then maybe work. But for the older students, learning Swedish was a chance to connect with their roots and not just in an abstract way.

Links between the villagers who stayed and emigres (or their relatives) have been fostered through Svenskbyborna, an association based on the Swedish island of Gotland. Every year, Swedes come to the village, many retracing their ancestors’ footsteps, and spend a few days living with one of the families.

I ask what feels like a cheeky question. All Swedes speak English right? So why not learn English and then it would be easy to take in guests from other countries as well? Of course, this would be a sensible idea in the same way it would be sensible for everyone to just give up their own languages and speak English or perhaps Mandarin.

As it stands, non-Swedish visitors to Gammalsvenskby are few and far between and are certainly unlikely to arrive on a tour bus. A couple of years back, Larisa saw a guy standing at the bus stop who clearly wasn’t a local. She asked him in English if he was a tourist. “I’m not a tourist, I’m a traveller” was his Livingstonian reply.

It was time for me to say goodbye to my new classmates and go for a wander around the village. Gammalsvenskby, which is part of the wider settlement of Zmiivka, also includes three other old villages which had been set up by German settlers. However, none remained after the Second World War so the only evidence they were here is in the buildings.

Zmiivka commands a dramatic view of the Dnieper river and is mostly made up of modest single story houses. Each has a garden to grow fruit and veg as well as a yard for chickens, geese and an apparently mandatory dog.

The most striking buildings in the village are the Soviet-era library and the cultural centre. For a community of around 2,400 people, they are much grander than you might get in Western Europe, but therein lies the problem – maintenance. Since the fall of the Soviet Union and the more recent hostilities with Russia, buildings like these have fallen into disrepair.

Whilst repairing the village’s public buildings may feel urgent to a visitor, for locals there are more immediate concerns. Since the war with Russia and the loss of the coal mining areas in Ukraine, heating homes during winter has become a real worry. So the
Svenskbyborna association is looking to provide practical support with planting fast growing willow which will make them more self-sufficient, not to mention the environmental benefits.

The association is also planning to set up a museum in the village which they hope to open in May 2020.

As a longer term aim, they have looked into possible land reform to make sure the locals have more than basic subsistence plots. However first things first: a democracy project has been initiated to empower the locals in the village to take charge of and run whatever the association helps to provide.

It isn’t just the buildings that need work. Last summer water from the village wells was sent to Sweden for analysis and found to be not fit for drinking.

So who will carry out the work? A quarter of the villagers are pensioners and about 100 people from the village are currently working in Poland, probably back-filling for the Poles working in Germany, UK or even Sweden. But in the long chain of migration, the village has it’s own immigrant, Enoch from Zimbabwe, although I unfortunately didn’t manage to track him down.

Wandering around the village on a spring day it’s hard not to feel optimistic, albeit slightly impatient that the village hasn’t already opened its museum and thereby had a means of sharing it’s story with the wider world. After all, the Swedes are just one chapter of a story that goes back to neolithic times.

For the Greeks this was on the Amber Road that connected the Black Sea with the Baltic. Archaeological digs have found treasures here which are kept in the Kherson Museum. The story of the Scythian, Tatar, Cossack, Russian, Ukrainian, German and yes, Zimbabwean settlers should to be told.

By telling their story, there’s an opportunity for everyone, visitors and locals to learn about what makes this village special. It is also a chance to rethink our understanding of migration, nationhood and what it means to belong somewhere.

So when the museum opens, I intend to be it’s first visitor – as a tourist and not a traveller.

An unintended memorial

The South Ukrainian city of Kherson has two large administrative buildings, one for the city and one for the whole region.

The regional administrative building has an impressive neoclassical limestone facade. The city hall is a much more down-to-earth concrete affair. But there is another difference …

a large banner with the cartoon picture of a young woman with a red splash across her face and the words ‘Excuse me, but who ordered Handzyuk?’.

It’s a reminder that last July one of its employees, Kateryna Handzyuk, an anti-corruption activist, had been doused in a litre of sulphuric acid. She suffered 40% burns and died of her injuries three months later.

The attack came after she had accused two leading figures in the regional administration of being involved in a scam to carry out illegal logging.

At the time of the attack, there was a national and international outcry. Local police made a quick arrest, accusing someone who happened to have been out of town when the incident took place. They also assessed the incident to be ‘hooliganism’ rather than an attempt to silence her.

Friends of Ms Handzyuk started a campaign to have the case properly investigated, along with over forty other attacks on activists which had come to light. The case has now been escalated to Ukraine’s Security Service. However, to maintain the pressure, especially during the current presidential elections, a series of protests are taking place of which the following small, but vocal, protest was one.

On 28th March 2019 fifty or so protesters made their presence felt with firecrackers and flares in front of the regional building as members of the administration simply watched from inside.

In one final act, protesters sprayed the names of who they suspected of ordering her murder on the building’s facade and on the pavement in front.

And then it was over.

No sooner had the protest finished, than the efforts to remove the writing began, but it was a ham-fisted attempt. Rather than properly clean the pavement, they daubed what looked like grey cement over the writing in big squares with a paint roller.

As for the building, one of the men took an angle grinder to the limestone facade and started grinding away the walls leaving circular gouge marks in the stonework.

So now whoever enters the building will walk past the scarred walls and every time they look out of the window, they’ll see the big grey squares with the names of the accused captured within.

Let’s hope the case doesn’t end in such a blatant cover-up.

further reading:
https://www.facebook.com/gandziukgate
https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/odr/the-murder-of-activist-kateryna-handzyuk/
https://www.kyivpost.com/article/opinion/op-ed/tetiana-bezruk-why-ukraine-needs-an-investigation-into-the-murder-of-activist-kateryna-gandziuk.html
https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-47201790
https://twitter.com/Jeremy_Hunt/status/1059439724979462146

The woven history of the Estonian Swedes

Estonian Swedes Tapestry

Every Thursday, a group of ladies meet up at the Rannarootsi Museum in the little town of Haapsalu in North-Western Estonia. It’s a chance for these Estonians to knit, sew and weave whilst having a good natter in Swedish.

Why Swedish? Because it’s their language. For a thousand years, Swedish-speaking people have lived in this part of modern day Estonia, although only a couple of hundred are here now.

For many visitors to Haapsalu who stumble across the museum, it is a surprise that this used to be an area mostly populated with Swedish speakers.

And so the Torsdagstanterna (Thursday aunties) make gloves, scarves, hats and rag rugs which are sold in the museum shop – keeping traditional crafts alive and helping the museum coffers. However, there is one thing they have made which is of epic proportions: the Aibotapet (Aiboland Tapistry).

This 20-meter work of art succinctly and humourously depicts the often dark thousand-year history of the Swedish-speaking people of Aiboland – their name for the north-west coastline and islands of modern Estonia. A history that was almost wiped out by a mass exodus towards the end of the Second World War.

For English and French visitors, parallels with the Bayeux Tapestry will spring to mind. Without that, who would remember the Battle of Hastings? After all, few can recall the Battle of the Northallerton.

Curiosity piqued by the tapestry can be sated in the other rooms of the museum which fill in the details. Here you can gain an insight into the daily lives of these coastal people and how they often had to eke out a living (if you like ducks, better skip the bit about winter bird hunting).

Speaking to the museum staff headed by Ülo Kalm, there is a real feeling of drive and energy not only to preserve but to grow.

Summer has meant heading to Ruhnu (Runö in Swedish) with a host of volunteers to renovate a farmstead which had been abandoned during the exodus. They also have ambitious plans to build a new visitor centre.

This sense of growth is bolstered by the popularity of learning Swedish at a nearby college in Noarootsi (Nuckö). Also, some of the people who left in the 1940’s or their descendants have been coming back, even if just for the summer.

But to think of this as a revival would be misleading. The old folk and the old ways are being remembered but there is also a new found interest in creating new bonds between people on either side of the Baltic. The Swedish being learned is Standard Swedish unlike the Aiboland dialects which were not even intelligible to each other, let alone mainland Swedes.

So what will the future bring?

Well next Thursday it will bring a group of ladies to the Museum to knit, sew and weave whilst having a good natter in Swedish.

Links:

Rannarootsi Museum

the art and graft of fencing

fencing practice in haapsalu

The little town of Haapsalu in North Western Estonia is home to En Garde, a fencing club that, not to mix in too many sporting metaphors, punches well above its weight. Over its 69 year history, it has produced a string of world champions including most recently, Nikolai Novosjolov , Kaido Kaaberma , Heidi Rohi and Kristina Kuusk.

So what is their secret?

I went to find out.

I was invited to attend the daily training session where the club’s junior members were being put through their paces.

fencing in haapsalu

Whilst waiting to speak to head coach Peeter Neelis, another coach (his sister Helen) looked me up and down and decided it was
clearly time for me to learn a thing or two. She put an epee in my hand and took me through some basics.

Before being let loose on an opponent, I was shown how to hold the sword – It’s more of a pinch than a swashbuckling grip. Then I was shown how to stand, which felt like doing karate on a surfboard.

Then I was given my first opponent and it was one I was confident of beating…

After eluding the tennis ball’s defences I managed to stab the board behind. It was time for me to take a step up.

This guy was a little trickier and thankfully I was wearing the correct safety gear or he could have had my eye out.

Then it was time for me to face a real opponent, a 12-year-old girl.

We followed the etiquette of saluting each other before donning our helmets and away we went. Sooner than you could say ‘kebab’, she had skewered me and I was a point down. A few swishes later and I was 3-0 down.

Incredibly, I managed to score the next point, although it would be fairer to say that I was given it by my well-mannered opponent who generously lowered her guard and stood still like a scarecrow.

It was an exhausting but fantastic experience.

While I was getting my breath back and the kids were packing up, Peeter spend some time with me to talk about the club. It’s hard to believe he’s in his late sixties as we discuss a range of topics. He was as interested in my opinions on the UK and Europe as expanding on why his club is so successful.

The club had been started by Peeter and Helen’s father, Endel in 1950. Endel’s story is epic and was made into a feature film in 2015 by Klaus Härö .

Despite the difficulties of Soviet life one thing Peeter was clear about was that it was good for nurturing sports. Equipment had been crude and central planning from Moscow was inflexible, but with few other outlets, fencing was something everyone in town tried and some excelled at.

Makes you think doesn’t it? If you ever visit Haapsalu all the old people you encounter can fence!

Peeter talks with modesty about his own part but he and the other coaches (including his sister) have created an environment which produces champions. So what are the ingredients of their success?

1. Practise the art

Fencing, the most refined of the western martial arts, is often described as physical chess. The parallels are clear. Each opponent plans and executes well practised moves usually in response to their opponent’s moves. Like chess, these moves require practising until they become second nature, and at En Garde, sessions run every day. Indeed, while we were talking one of the youngsters was practising the same parry and thrust again and again with one of the instructors.

2. Put in the graft

The sport is physically demanding. During a training session, a top class fencer will burn 2-3,000 calories. Training in other sports is encouraged to build up all round fitness.

3. Success breeds success?

It’s easy to think that over the years success has bred success and continuing to do so, especially as it also brings in crucial funding. However, even from this brief meeting, it’s clear that it’s the drive of the individuals who have pushed this club beyond the bounds of what could be expected from a small town.

So what of the future? After all, there are more opportunities for young people. More things competing for their attention.

Practice had finished, but several of the kids were still there, laughing and chatting while doing cool down exercises and packing away. Its clear that fencing is at the centre, but it isn’t the only reason the kids are here. In an environment like this, it’s easy to see a bright future.

further info:

En Garde Facebook page

The Fencer movie on IMDB


Welcome to Argo’s world

I have an idea for an alarm clock ringtone.

It’s the sound of pancakes being cooked on a Primus stove in an Estonian winter wilderness.

Would it get me out of bed ready for a commute to work? Probably not.

But it would make me want to get up and go back to Pärnu in Estonia.

Argo and his wife Elen run Seikle Vabaks (freedom of adventure), a company organising year round adventures on land and sea. It was the end of January and recent heavy snowfalls had quashed my ideas of outdoor skating. Instead, Argo offered to to take me on a hike through the wetlands near Pärnu.

But before we set off, Arno showed me some of the other things you can do in Pärnu, which despite being known as Estonia’s summer capital is a year-round destination. It’s shallow bay, which warms up nicely for the surfers in the summer, freezes over in winter opening it up to winter sports. Unfortunately, while I was there recent snowfall meant that only the ice fishermen were out – a popular attraction for Latvians from the unfrozen Gulf of Riga. In spring and autumn, Pärnu Bay also becomes something of a Mecca for bird watchers during the great migrations.

While we were there, we witnessed the rare treat of an ice halo, which is rainbow made of fine ice crystals. Who needs Photoshop when nature does it for you.

Our next stop was Pernova – a nature exploration centre, principally for the local children but everyone is welcome to come and learn about what to see and do in the wild. Argo runs the forest school activities there.

After this introduction, it was time to make our call on the wild. We drove to the edge of the Pärnu wetlands at Kilksama. After donning our rucksacks filled with provisions and strapping our snowshoes on top (we would need these later) we set off.

The snow we trudged through told the recent history of the place or at least what had happened since the previous fall of snow.

One person must have been on our path along with a dog which had deviated here and there to sniff and mark. A rabbit had also been hopping passed at some point.

As we continued, these tracks disappeared and we headed across a barren land that had been harvested for peat and which had an almost glacial beauty. When we reached the wetland, we put on our shoe shoes. This was partly for our convenience and safety but also to protect the plants we may inadvertently walk on.

As we progressed through the wetlands, Argo would stop every now and then to prod the ground with a long spike. Although it seemed at random to me, he was actually checking the ice when we were nearing the edge of a bog, or lake, as this is where it is most likely to be weakest to walk on. Argo explained that where trees grew in clumps, that was dry land. The smaller plants we saw were actually trees whose growth had been stunted by wetter ground and the areas where no trees grew at all were the bogs. Now the landscape beneath the snow was starting to make more sense.

We stopped by some woodland and set up the stove by hanging it from a tree. Whilst the Argo started cooking pancakes, my job was to make some kissel from a packet. It’s a sweet fruity gloop that was ideal rib lining on a cold day.

As the sun lowered, it was time to head back but not without taking a moment to reflect on what a beautiful place we had been in.

What a place…

links:

If you would like to get in touch with Argo and Elen you can use VisitEstonia

https://www.visitestonia.com/en/seikle-vabaks-bog-shoe-hike-in-tolkuse-bog

or Facebook

https://www.facebook.com/seiklevabaksmatkad/

Shock and Awe the Estonian Way

Whilst icy dips in the Serpentine are national news, here in Haapsalu, on the north western coast of Estonia, there is no need for such a fanfare. This plucky band of ice swimmers just take the plunge when they get a chance. One quiet Wednesday lunchtime, I was invited to accompany them by Kertu who runs the Tiiker B&B in the town centre.

Anticipation

While Kertu got the ice clearing tools out, I couldn’t help but shiver,
despite being fully clothed in my winter wear. We set to work breaking up the thin layer of ice that had reformed overnight and scooping the slush out of the bathing hole. In the meantime, two more women joined us who were on their lunch break and had popped over for a dip.

We got into our swimming gear, not forgetting our woolly hats and went to the waters edge. Being very polite, they let me go in first.

Resolve

After I had handed over my camera and photos of me were being taken, there was only one thing left for me to do. Get in.

Shock

The water was unsurprisingly freezing. Kertu had told me to take it easy the first time, which felt like very wise advice as soon as my nether regions touched the water. I stayed in for ages – at least several seconds but as soon as I was out of the water, I instantly regretted not staying in longer.

Awe

With my towel round my shoulders, I took in the scene. The brilliant sunshine poking through the clouds, the flawless ice on the frozen bay, the delicate sparkling ice crystals and four mad humans.

After glow

After a couple of minutes I felt the glow – the body’s attempt to deal with the aftermath by sending blood back out to the limbs. As well as the physical sensation, there was also something of a psychological ctrl-alt-delete. Now I could see why people perform this act of apparent madness.

We got changed back in the cabin, then mopped and tidied up ready for the evening bathers.

Kertu warned me that in an hour or two, I may start to shiver as my body readjusted. Sure enough, an hour or so later, I did start to shiver. It was time for a nice hot drink.

links:

To go ice swimming in Haapsalu, ask Kertu: www.tiiker.ee

For ice swimming in the UK: https://www.outdoorswimmingsociety.com/

Saaremaa – Juniper’s Love Island

At a time when juniper is in decline across the UK, mostly through poor land management, for a gin geek like me, a visit to an island where the plant is thriving promised to be quite an tonic.

But as I found out, as well as being a place of conservation, it is every bit a place of innovation. I met with Liisi Kuivjõgi at Orbu farm in pretty Leedri village who took time out to talk me through how they make their special syrup: and it is special. It has a taste and colour most similar to maple syrup but with subtle pine-forest notes, which admittedly doesn’t sound great to anyone familiar with 1970’s toilet cleaner. However, it is great, as are the various sauces and conserves all developed from the same process.

To make the syrup, they take fresh shoots from the new spring growth rather than berries. The shoots are steeped in water for four days then the resulting infusion is boiled down with sugar until rich and gloopy. This seems to give it a much subtler flavour, despite the rather vigorous syrup-making process.

Liisi and her sisters are planning. They are thinking about tapping their own birch and maple trees and seeing what new things they can make.

With a belly full of syrup, I grab some perfectly decent juniper beer made by Pihtla and head to my lodgings at the Aavikunurga Guesthouse in Randevere which are home to a different kind of innovation. As father of the modern Estonian language Johannes Aarvik, who grew up here, sought to standardise the various Estonian dialects. His methodical and open-minded approach included borrowing words from other languages like Finnish. It was readily adopted by the Estonian government and by doing so enabled a nation to be build in the inter-war years.

The next day I headed to the main town on the island, Kuresaare, for another meeting with some more innovators.

In the old electricity generating plant in Tolli Street, I met with Lisa who now brews Poide beer with her husband. With little experience but full of can-do spirit, they started brewing beer at home in Poide before up-scaling operations at their new building in Kuresaare.

Among a range of great beers, two stand out: The imperial brown ale and the rye beer which is like eating a slice of rich rye bread.

But leaving myself little time to linger, I went to visit another local produce provider. I met Maria and Inge at Idea Farm who have used their knowledge of food technology to grow the fruit, vegetables, herbs and spices on a small-holding surrounded by beautiful woodland of pines, birches and of course juniper.

They make their own products which are available locally and through a little bit of personal exporting, also in Marlborough, England. Anywhere else, their small-holding with it’s neat rows of crops, would seem like a rural idyll, but on Saaremaare it’s just normal.

After grabbing a picnic, I headed for the beach, which meant walking through woodlands mixed with juniper. The sound of birds preparing nests and gentle waves lapping the shore while you can almost see the new juniper shoots pushing their way out a little further all serve to slow time down.

Sitting by the shore, nibbling some dried fish (I like it, but not to everyone’s taste), it’s a chance to reflect on what makes Saaremaa special. It is a beautiful island where juniper thrives. But what makes the island special is that it’s people have taken what nature has given them and made new things, all with a little love.


Useful links: