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.

short pig long-style

Food is everything we are. It’s an extension of nationalist feeling, ethnic feeling, your personal history, your province, your region, your tribe, your grandma.

Anthony Bourdain

One of the great pleasures of travel is trying local food and in doing so, stepping into a local culture. For me in the Ukraine, that meant accompanying my beer with spicy pigs’ ears. I can confidently say I will never touch them again and it wasn’t because they tasted bad.

I like all food and when I don’t, it messes with my mind. Take andouillette, the French take great pride in this Troyens speciality made from pigs’ intestines, which is a gustatory form of Russian roulette. When well-seasoned, most mouthfuls are a pleasant, vaguely meaty experience, but then you get the one with the ‘bullet’ and suddenly your mouth feels like a farmyard. It doesn’t take much stretch of the imagination to guess where the flavour actually comes from. The French love of andouillette, or for that matter, geziers and fromage de tête seems to come more from their attachment to their peasant roots than to the taste. Even so, I occasionally give it a go when popping across the English Channel. I like all food so surely, one day I will come round.

However, eating pigs’ ears was crossing a boundary. Whilst chewing one of these softly-cooked moist nibbles, my brain issued a warning. Human.

The taboo which prevents us from eating our own species, despite having a burgeoning population, kicked in. There was no way in hell I was going to eat this. Who would? More to the point, why did the dish come with two forks?

I asked the waitress what she thought of pigs’ ears. She told me she wouldn’t eat them and didn’t know anyone who did. They had only just starting serving it as something to satisfy the ‘macho’ types.

With my next beer, I went for the real taste of Ukraine – sunflower seeds.

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

Sauna

Once upon a time there was an orphan girl who lived with an unkind family. She was the first to rise and the last to go to bed and was worked all day long and they wouldn’t even let her go and have her sauna. So she begged the moon to take her away. The moon took her along with her birch whisk and pail, and if you look closely, you can still see her in the moon.

The Moon Maiden – traditional story

Those crazy Estonians! What does it say about a culture when the worst thing you can do to someone is to deprive them of their sauna?

As far as I was concerned, I already knew what saunas were all about. A while back, a sauna was part of my weekly penance at the local leisure centre. I would go there to be less unfit by lolloping my way up and down the swimming pool until I got tired, bored or both. As a break, I would pop into the sauna until I also got tired and bored of that. There was no pleasure in it and I just didn’t get the point. I mean, if you really want to crowbar yourself into a crate with a load of other hot and sweaty people, why not catch the 07:58 to London Euston?

When I was in Estonia, I rented a place that happened to have its own private sauna. I could see that when the owner was showing me around, she felt that the most important thing for me to learn was how to get the wood burning stove in the sauna up to the right temperature. After nodding in all the right places, I was entrusted with the keys.

At first I ignored the sauna and plumped for a nice hot bath at the end of the day, but I had a nagging feeling that I was not really entering into the spirit of things.

One evening after a particularly knackering but fun day of tromping through snowy forests and ice skating, I prepped the stove and filled the pail with water.

It took a few minutes for me to ‘get it’ but finally it dawned on me and I understood what saunas were about. The inside of this sauna was very much like the one at the local swimming pool. The difference was in what was outside.

In sensory terms, a sauna is about as far removed as you can get from spending the day in the big expanse of a silent snowy forest or skating across a frozen lake.

Taoists see the world around them through yin and yang. Followers of Socrates and Hegel seek understanding and progress through dialectics. Meanwhile people up here in the north of Europe just need a pail and whisk to make sense of their day.

And what if you can’t? You could always ask the moon for help.

The woven history of the Estonian Swedes

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

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