The iron curtain of freedom

Day 11 - Luxembourg

I awoke in room 410 with enough time to throw my clothes back in the pack, bid farewell to Munich, I barely knew thee, and begin the end of our journey. We only had one stop left, that of Luxembourg, the sovereign tax haven straddling the borders of Germany, France and Belgium. It was a tiny dot on the horizon and we'd have to cross most of Southern Germany to reach the place. As James steeled himself to six hours behind the wheel with equal fortitude I took up the pen again, every epic journey needs its chronicler right? But my mind, never the most biddable beast, drifted from the empty page. It stared wordlessly at the passing hills and trees as for the first time on the trip the car pointed towards home. The landscape was imbued with a glow, as if the softest and most gentle tune followed its contours and weaved through its verdant forests. A thread of gold too thin and fine for all to be able to see glinted in the sun and stretched off into the landscape pulling me one way as the road relentlessly pulled me the other. It wrapped and gilded my feelings even as I laughed at their slight absurdity. All things must pass but I exalted in the moment, breathing in the scent of fresh linen, wriggling my toes at the bottom of the bed as the early morning sun crept around the edges of the curtains. I corralled my romantic and soporific thoughts by and by and threw them back to the preceding days, though the former affection complimented the latter. It had been a great trip, restorative in a way I probably didn't realise at the time. I was never between places, leaving behind a past that wasn't what I hoped it would be and stretching for a future that absolutely, positively was going to be everything I dreamed of. The moment had value and wasn't to be endured until a more favourable one came along. I approached my 48th country and still I move, still I ponder its meaning and ask myself again why I do it. It seems so utterly caused by chance, by answering an unexpected question with an unexpected answer. A 'yes' when every ounce of my timid being screamed 'no'. Maybe I doubt the authenticity of my experiences because of that and suspect that it is all just the cold compilation of a list. Am I still striving to be defined by travel or does travel unavoidably or naturally define me? As ever I seem to have more questions than answers, what the hell is this blog for? But if I narrow my eyes I think I can almost see the answer, just beyond the horizon. What is it? I'll have to go there to find out.
Luxembourg City will not be my most effusive and excessively floral rendition of a place. It is one of, I was later informed by a learned friend, Europe's seven micro-states, the others being Lichtenstein, Andorra, San Marino, Malta, Vatican City and Monaco. I had only previously visited the latter of these which burns my burnished travelling pride a mite. But then I've barely done half of Europe at this point, 26 of 51, that horizon ever leads somewhere new. Anyway as I was saying, Luxembourg City, well there's not a lot to say. It has a funfair in the city centre, it is populated disproportionately by wealthy people (the city, less so the funfair), a gentleman could more than adequately outfit himself in the ateliers and his gentlewoman would be looked after too. We took dinner in the Place d'Armas to the background of Luxembourger folk music from the bandstand, possibly in Luxembourgish. The sky darkened to cobalt and little bulbs flickered to life above our heads. It felt a pleasantly dull place, unrocked by the currents of the continent, let alone the world. It was a model village surrounded by waves that heaved greater each passing day pulling men, women and children back and relentlessly forth and often, tragically, down. They crash against hasty defences and pour through gaps to find a level ground. Just as a tsunami reaches its full extent as you stand before it on the beach so we have slapped the waters many miles away and seen the ripples grow.
The exquisite ease of our passage through eleven countries was well illustrated the next day as we sped like Greg Rutherford towards the ferry, our schedule not enhanced by a detour around Gent. Razor-wire topped fences (so thoughtfully donated by the British Government) lined our passage and segregated us from the camps sprung up to either side. These weren't there the last time I came through Calais, the fences, but to an extent the camps too. It made me wonder if the ignorant transitions between the...politically united...nations of this continent would be there the next time I come through. It made me wonder if we have idly lifted the corner of the snooker table and are starting to feel the thunderous crash of simple physics across the red-stained baize...


Day 10 - Munich

So many people have become just portraits hung only with cobwebs in the attic of my memories. Passing acquaintances and fleeting passions created by chance intersection of different paths criss-crossing the world. And so I thought it was with her. I hadn't seen the girl since those last days of Margaret River, part of the sturm und drang that fires the memory of it. There is a delight in the dramatic recall but memory is just our internal storytelling function, malleable to the narrative that we want to hear. Is all history oral and shaped by Chinese whispers? Maybe this blog will act as my corrective to that, once stripped of the requisite flourish. Even now those events seem improbable, like EastEnders in Oz. After a hasty goodbye shielded from inflamed eyes, and one prompted by belated decency on my part, I welcomed the escape of the road. But they were great days for all their filthy, haphazard melodrama and I tear a little at their remembrance. I guess not all things stay in the box in which you put them though, no matter how prettily wrapped. Proof of that was in the very fact that the autobahn kissed our worn wheels again and I was heading for Munich.

"You're such a tourist!"
It was hard to disagree with the fräulein. Matt, James and I had arranged to meet her in Mariensplatz which, according to the guidebook, is a square (platz in German) in the city of Munich. Okay I didn't read the guidebook but being first there we found a place that satisfied our simple criteria of being in a cellar (keller to the Germans) and served beer. She wasn't enthralled at having to meet us in Munich's equivalent of the M&Ms shop. Not a great first impression - I imagine after two years I'd probably have to make one afresh. In perfect contrast to hers as she walked down the stairs...memory does not always embellish, sometimes it does not do justice. We ordered a platter of mixed meatstuffs from the heavily illustrated menu and listened to a large table of large Americans loudly enjoying the curiosities of 'Bavarian Culture'. We may be Brits abroad but we are not American tourists and, authentic German meal finished, we implored our hostess to take us somewhere a little less obvious. So we found ourselves in a large beer garden in the west of München. It was also the oldest in the city I am reliably informed. Heaving for a Thursday night the clientele ran the the gamut from young to old. A couple were dislodged from a 4-seater table for the promise of our more lucrative business though the waiter soured on our revelation that it would be drinks only. Nevertheless four litres of excellent beer was shortly slammed in front of us in a displeased yet pleasing manner. Of all the good reasons to move to Bavaria, you'd be allowed to support Bayern right?, the beer must be the best. She was also a fan of beer and football, regaling us with memories of the summer of 2014 and open top buses and the best party ever. Well she wasn't born in 1966 but that was pretty great too as I remember. We also learned how to drink like a Bavarian - strong eye contact, slight grip adjustment, wastage. And we learned the international sign language for describing various sizes of boat. What I didn't learn was how to perform the dance commonly known as 'The Postman'. It was performed in my absence to Matt and James' great amusement. Requests for an encore were met with an unequivocal 'nein'. The waiter presented some sausages and a handshake as an olive branch, happily accepted, and the time flew by in a happy haze until there were two people left in the oldest beer garden in Munich. It was a night I'll box up and put away, to be opened again in years to come, a time capsule of flawless enjoyment.
Ich bin ein Municher. Maybe.

The Hallmarks™ of civilisation

Day 9 - Bratislava

Breakfast was taken in Hotel Sacher in Vienna, home of the famous Sacher Torte. I wouldn't ordinarily begin the day with cake but holidays do strange things to a person. Suitably tortified we jumped on a train for the second of our two day-trips, this time to Slovakia. I had preconceptions about the places that we'd been to so far, some based on personal experience others less so but Slovakia ranked as a genuine unknown. Having great affection for Prague and by extension the Czech Republic I suppose I wondered if the Velvet Revolution of 1989 had cleaved off the less desirable part into the eastern state. Luckily we three had established a means of determining the level of advancement of a place, thus -

Question 1 - Does it have an Ikea?
yes, we saw one from the train.

Question 2 - Can you tour the place on a segway?
yes, one was sitting outside a tourist office.

Question 3 - From where you are standing can you see an H&M?
...oh Bratislava you were so close to maximum points.

But perhaps we should not expect too much as the city didn't have electricity until 1978. We walked around the cobbled old town and would have probably had a greater appreciation for its preservation and general easiness on the eye had we not been in so many cities recently of equal visual appeal. Hardly Bratislava's fault that we'd spun through 8 by this point. And liked them all to a greater or lesser extent. Except Jönköping. Jönköping can go to hell. We took a drink in the faded glory of the Roland Café with its frayed red seats, greek sculptures and octagenarian at the piano. It harked back to a more elegant, slower time in its look and feel but who can trust such a feeling these days when so much 'Disneyfication' takes place and the facade of the olde world is plastered over the cynical joists of the new. It turns us all into cynics I suppose. Whatever its provencance was it was a damn sight better than the place chosen for dinner. We'd also tried to establish rules for picking restaurants, chiefly - don't go to the first place you see and avoid menus illustrated by pictures. The former we achieved in Bratislava, the latter proved impossible. On the plus side my soup tasted good and arrived quickly (we had a train to catch), on the negative side it was probably made before I'd even been to Slovakia. Matt took has turn on the goulash and with disquieted bellies we made for the station.
The last time I was so close to a railway track abroad things had gone a little wrong. But this time I had waited for the train to stop before getting off. And the onward journey would be by bus rather than ambulance. A bus which, after a mildly concerning amount of time, did arrive and was shortly filled by the onrushing mob of fellow passengers. We hung back in the certain knowledge that another one would turn up and and there was absolutely, positively no way we would just be left in some tiny town in western Slovakia. The second bus did come and, despite the driver's assertion that there was no way he was taking us to Vienna, we found a seat. It transpired that there was another train that would finally get us to where we were going. We milled around on fully operational railway tracks at the next station awaiting the rumoured train. It had gone from 1st world to 3rd world in a remarkably short space of time and gave me semi-fond memories of the wilder places I've visited. The fondess largely drawn from having escaped those previous situations. Lights in the distance became our transport home and we were moving again.
The sun settled into an orange bloom on the horizon and an eerie mist rose from the green fields. Wind turbines cut lazy holes in the sky. It is ever the hardest balance for me when travelling to decide whether I should be photographing the passing sights, describing yesterday or simply feeling the moment. Whichever I choose I am losing something of the other two and risk deferring my enjoyment to retrospectives. In recording a moment through camera or words do I strip it of its emotional resonance? Is the real beauty lost in overly literal dissection? I hope not.

Enjoy your trip?

Day 8 - Budapest

A Buda, a Pest, maybe a golden grand piano and a hidden treasure chest (i'd settle for a Nazi gold train though), we pulled out of Hauptbahnhof Station and were on our way to the country of the mighty magyars. Booked in an old fashioned cabin with 6 seats in a 3 + 3 facing arrangement I had the misfortune to be seated next to a grimble who had decided that now was the most opportune time to trim his fingernails. Being English I was unable to make any complaint louder than an internal 'tut' but there was a woman in the cabin of indeterminate origin who had no such social restrictions and soon called him to account. He shrugged in a nonchalant 'what could possibly be the problem' way and turned instead to his cyrillic newspaper. Decorum restored the soothing sway of movement lulled me. There is an unexpected luxuriousness to closing your eyes on a train, a delicious reduced consciousness softening the hard lines just beyond your eyelids. I can't sleep on a train and why would I want to when I can drift through this gentle haze, my febrile senses dulled, my aching extremities just distant memories. The world melts into a froth, it becomes a watercolour in the rain and it is seldom more tolerable to me.
Stepping out of the train we were given first-hand experience of the 'swarm' as our prime minister so sympathetically put it. Anyone of a darker complexion was being given extra scrutiny on the platform. Groups of men hung around outside the station planning the next step on their long journey to what they no doubt hoped would be a better place than from whence they came. It is so easy to forget how staggeringly fortunate you are, that you have won first prize in the lottery of life and the awful extremes of existance are confined to the pages of books, caged by bitter experience and exported woe. I think the pleasantness and ease of our lives is, in part, sustained by the suffering of others and have no blame for those who do not wish to live and die under that unequal system. You can only hope you never have to face the choices given to the 2,500 immigrants who entered Hungary the same day as us. Or to the Hungarian people who suffered under Nazi occupation at the end of the second world war and the 'liberation' by Soviet forces for the next 40 years. Budapest's 'House of Terror' is the building in which the secret police of both Nazi and Soviet regimes monitored, tortured and disappeared dissenters. It is a meandering, almost numbing journey that demonstrates the hollow triumph of VE day in this part of the continent. It leaves you wondering why Eastern Europe was left to its fate or if the allies truly knew the implications of the Soviet sphere of influence or, indeed, still had the energy to care. Churchill did saying in 1945, before his most famous application of the term, that "it is not impossible that tragedy on a prodigious scale is unfolding itself behind the iron curtain which at the moment divides Europe in twain." I can't answer the question of whether more could have been done because I sit at a great distance, too easily filing the events of the past and decisions of people I've never known into binary categories of good and bad. Am I to judge those who collaborated in the subjugation of their countries when a national border is a line of a map and the only true border is the one drawn around the square foot of space each human being occupies? We live too short and stand too close to life to see the curvature of time. The romance of resistance should never overpower the horror of its failure.
Departing Budapest James and I left Matt to his book in our cabin and settled ourselves into the buffet car. James had acquired quite a taste for lemon beer and, finding the bar's stock to be warm, asked for a can or two to be placed into the fridge. This bemused the barman who did not seem to understand that we were going to be here for a while. Ordering a standard pilsner instead we sweetened it with a jäger chaser. This caught the attention of a couple seated to our right. Nestor was a doctor from Colombia via Mexico who was in Europe for a conference, accompanied by his wife Aurora. We chatted amiably for the next few hours covering subjects such as jägerbombs there were few jägerbombs involved. He had acquired quite a taste for the stuff by the time we pulled back into Vienna. Back at the hotel and shortly before falling into a pizza-induced coma, James tagged Matt in and we spent the next few hours on our balcony covering subjects such as whiskey there were a few whiskeys involved.

Roll up that (road) map

Day 7 - Vienna

We'd been there only hours before but there was no sign of the absinthe bar. The place where it should have been seemed to offer no sign of its existence. Maybe we did drink that hallucinatory stuff after all but not here... The miles behind the wheel were starting to take their toll and both drivers eagerly accepted the opportunity of an extended break. The next stop was Vienna and we could pitch up there for a few days, visiting Hungary and Slovakia by train. We passed Austerlitz, scene of Napoleon's most renowned victory 110 years ago which caused the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire the political entity, centred around Germany, that had dominated Western Europe for near a thousand years. There is a certain irony that the wild and unconquered Germania delineated by the Rhine and Danube should become the spiritual successor to the Roman Empire, in the west at least. The battle caused William Pitt, the British prime minister at the time to say of the map of Europe "Roll up that map; it will not be wanted these ten years". Throw a stone in Europe and hit a piece of salient history, fire a gun and create one. From Napoleon with his Grand Armeé of 350,000 to a single man on a train we have ever tried to shape our world through violence, the fallacy of the continuance of diplomacy by other means. But then the pen is mightier than the sword, however little comfort that gives to the person being stuck with the sword. To coin a phrase like that would do me for this life.
An essential feature of everywhere we have stayed thus far has been the availability of secure parking. This is owing to the fact that Matt's £3500 bike (wheels not included) was in the back and was, as he reminded us, far more precious than myself or James. The Meininger in Vienna had promised parking but not delivered so we were forced to find an alternative. As well as being underground we managed to park next to a classic Porsche 356 Speedster worth around £200,000 making the trusty Polo an even less likely target. I'd been to Vienna earlier that year so felt reasonably able to act as tour guide, I was also aided by Burgess Maps™ although hindered might be a better term. We took the tram along a stretch of the Ringstraße though not too far as we didn't buy tickets and I rated our chances of talking our way out of a fine as slim given the general Viennese disinclination towards levity. We tried for dinner at Figlmüller but the place gets ridiculously busy and for once on this trip it was easy to believe a restaurant when they said they were booked out. We found dinner nearby at a place called Lübeck instead. Finishing the evening in Champions Bar to watch Liverpool play Arsenal in what was a riveting 0-0 draw, no really it was, more riveting than this blog entry anyway.

Absinthe makes the heart grow fonder

Day 6 - Prague

The aroma of wild pig filled our nostrils as it slowly roasted in the midday sun. Unfortunately rather than being on a spit in a beer garden it was instead on a central reservation as we crawled past in traffic. Bade farewell to Wrocław and the Monopole and our short stint as high rollin' ballers we made a westward turn. Small villages dotted the, pig notwithstanding, beautiful Czech countryside as it swept out and up and down to our either side. There was a crispness to the landscape, the air seemed fresh and clear, everything just so. I have good memories of Prague have been taken here as a surprise for my 30th birthday. The three of us had seen one or two mediaeval city centres at this point but for my koruna Prague's remains one of the most visually arresting. The cobbled streets and castle perched high above, saints peering down at you from Charles bridge, one of ten crossing the Vltava here. It also retains the, not inconsiderable, appeal of cheap living costs. Accommodation for the night came in the form of the Mosaic Hostel, an eccentric establishment notable for people suspended from umbrellas Mary P style around the place.
A pleasant stroll along the river in the burnished light of late afternoon found us in the shadow of the castle for dinner. A wasp dived like a stuka into James' pint of radler which was thereafter guarded by the effective combination of napkin and knife. Presumably he intended to use the napkin as a net to capture the next wasp before delivering the coup dé grace with the knife but no more turned up so we'll never be sure. Walking back along the opposite bank Matt asked a, thus far, uncharacteristic question, "drink?" The proximity of a WC might have been a factor but never one to look a gift horse in the mouth we readily agreed. Boats, swans and swan boats pootled around next to the pontoon we were drinking our pilsner on and the DJ struck up with a strange cacophony of sounds that I suspect he recorded himself. In a basement. At his mum's house. She probably said it was excellent. Mums say things like that even if they aren't true. I could stand no more of the aural assault and we found a quieter time in the garden of a microbrewery. The Czech Republic has a zero alcohol limit so James was onto the soft drinks lest he be pulled over early the next morning. The drink of his, or rather our, choosing was kofola, a dark sticky liquid tasting of indeterminate herbs and bitumen. I don't know why he wasn't enjoying abstinence but the beer myself and Matt were drinking was excellent. The spirit chaser we were drinking, becherovka, was not. There was one stop left before the hostel, we happened to be passing an absinthe bar and there was that question again, "drink?" The proprietor had clearly spent a fair amount of time chasing the fairy himself and talked us quickly, enthusiastically and barely coherently through the menu. Whilst the top of the range stuff promised a changed perception of colours, hallucinations and other effects noticeable only to your friends, it was £30 a go. We picked more modest vintages from lower down the menu called 'King of Spirits' and 'Absinthe 55'. Rather than the ice method used in Stockholm to prepare the drink we opted instead for the fire. The absinthe is ignited with a slotted spoon above it and a sugar cubes atop that. You wait for the sugar to melt, the flames to go out and the feeling of being punched in the throat and stomach simultaneously to subside after you've necked it. Czech please! (had to do one)

Balling and chains

Day 5 - Wrocław

"And I got an engine full of trunk space, I get money three ways, f*****g bitches three ways, seven different foreigns plus no hablé. But I make that bitch walk for some cheesecake."

Tyga's words from early 2015 inspired us to leave Berlin's Meininger Hotel and take a left turn into Poland. We pointed the ride towards the city of Wrocław where we could live like kings for a fraction of the money Scandinavia had demanded of us, £8 pancakes whaaat? The relative weakness of the country's economy was ably demonstrated when silky autobahn became torn and undulating tarmac. The car bounced and juddered and my pen criss-crossed the page like an etch-a-sketch in the hands of a drunk child. The second demonstration came when a car behind, furiously flashing its lights, got us to stop on the hard shoulder. A balding, middle-aged, be-paunched guy walked to the driver's window and, handing over a business card, proceeded to try and interest us in a deal with his import/export company. I kept a wary eye on his homie still in the car behind lest he decide to join the party. Guy no. 1 seeing our dumbstruck confusion starting removing the chain around his neck, to sell to us? Who knows. That was about enough, James started the engine, we made our apologies (never lose your manners) and we sped away. A strange and disconcerting experience. True players have no time for hostels (unless they hiding out from the five-0) so we'd booked into the 5-star Hotel Monopole. The rooms were more dark wood than plywood, marble replaced Formica, complementary slippers and grooming products replaced absolutely nothing. As we planned to get crunk around town that night, a quick survey of my creased and worn clothes turned up nothing sufficiently fly. I needed to go to the shops to pickup some dope new threads and perhaps, as Tyga recommends, 'a chain brighter than a strobe light' (Import/Export guy would also approve). On the way I happened upon a cheery little chap stood in the street. He was 4 inches tall and appeared to smoking a pipe, probably full of top grade green, gangster. First appearing in 2001 he is one of over 300 dwarfs on the streets of Wrocław that commemorate, in part, the Orange Alternative which was an anti-communist movement from the eighties. After a quick spin around the picturesque city centre I found a shopping centre and purchased some new clothes for a song and a dance and strolled back to our palatial residence.

"Ahh! Aye babe this my new shit
I'm the black Richie Rich with the roof missing."

Me and the crew headed up to party with bitches on the roof terrace of the hotel. Sadly the roof terrace was closed due to a spot of rain so we too, like Tyga, found the roof to be 'missing'. Instead we went and had dinner at a nice little spot in the main square with an authentic menu and red gingham tablecloths, pimping. After a meal which my notes say was sausage and was nice (A.A Gill better watch out) it was time to hit the scene like we big money. Matt wasn't in a scene-hitting mood so left us to it. Two spiced rum and coke for 25 zloty (£4) hard not to like a place with prices like that. Also hard not to like a place whose toilets so closely resemble an old-fashioned brothel, the redness of the walls, carpets and lights stained my eyeballs I think. It topped the facilities in the first bar where we drank crunchy coffee bean cocktails, they were just lit with candles on the floor, it created a real sense of romance at the urinal. Time to get game so based on the recommendation of the hostess at brothel bar we swaggered over to Club Grey. The real realest don't do it by the glass they pop bottles but Grey didn't have any Cristal in so we settled for a bottle of Gentleman Jack (mixers not included). Okay so the only ice was in a bucket but people were definitely feeling us flossin'. Making for the dancefloor jack in hand we busted some big moves to some deep grooves, picture a LMFAO video and you've got the idea. I'd feel remiss not to tell you what the toilet was like in this place too, it was full of guys who had temporarily suspended their steroid intake to cram into cubicles to take other sorts of drugs. We ended the night in a McDonalds, not pimping but man gotta eat right? Somehow managed to get invited to a wedding in Poland next year, looking forward to it Maciek! I'll leave you with more wise words from Tyga -

"This that fly shit, King shit only
Drop top, no roof - ahhh Wrocław"

Blitzing cities

Day 4 - Berlin

>A restless night's sleep hadn't left Matt best disposed towards a long drive (my standing offer to take a turn still being rebuked) but I'd wager me and James felt worse. Matt likened the car to a hearse given the state of his two passengers. I drifted in and out of semi-lucid dreams, my consciousness on the melting edge of reality. 6 hours passed until I stepped out, blinking into a dusty car park somewhere in the Mitte district of Berlin. I'd long heard naught but good things about the capital and of all the places on the original itinerary it was the one I was keenest to visit. The itinerary, however, was evolving and we'd set ambitious targets to steam through Europe in a grand arc. Coincidentally it was exactly 5 years since my first road trip through the continent from Istanbul to Italy. How many countries had I seen since then? How many thousands of miles travelled by plane, car, train? On bike, boat or on foot? How many experiences since that first nervous journey into the unplanned? It becomes a habit, an all-inclusive to a Spanish island doesn't satiate the expanded curiosity travel gives. The sort of intrigue that makes an atlas just a list of places you haven't yet been, a dartboard of intention. The wanderlust that finds you saying things like 'yeah but the western part of Iraq is probably OK to visit'. The need for the real that chases those C-beams in the dark.
A small round plaque at my feet marked one of the fallen. A person died here trying to cross from east to west. A doomed attempt to escape the constricting control of the German Democratic Republic and the Stasi. Any country with the words democratic or republic in its name fairly often isn't. It is disconcerting to think this took place during our lifetimes (well not James') and I do have a vague recollection of the wall coming down. I think I remember the news showing people stood atop the brutalist symbol of their oppression feverishly smashing it with hammers, sickles nowhere in sight. We walked around a still intact section of the wall. Here and there parts of it were wreathed with vegetation grown tall in 25 years. The green leaves swallowed the graffitied and eroded concrete and reminded me that nature cares nothing for our perpetual attempts to partition the earth. We can clear it, poison it, burn it but it will ripple our boulevards and creep through our deserted halls long after we've gone. I hadn't realised that Berlin had been a tiny island in East Germany closer to Poland than to the rest of its country. I wonder which side of the wall felt more besieged? The contrast with the present day is stark, where we don't even slow for international borders. I can't be persuaded that distance from Europe is needed, that the EU is a failed idea. I don't pretend to have a comprehensive understanding of the economics of it all but I take the more philosophical viewpoint that when a people strive to define themselves as fundamentally, irreconcilably different from another group of people it opens the way for very bad things to happen. The holocaust memorial is, at first glance, an impenetrable abstraction of that scar on the human race but find your way inside and it becomes a wholly different thing. Grey and remorseless concrete begins to rise on either side and the ground slopes downward as you walk. Faceless and metronomic and utterly without sympathy soon it towers above your head and there is no clear route out. The din of civilisation falls away and voices softly echo between the pillars. You can't see where they come from which gives them an ethereal quality as though from people long gone, lives long extinguished. I found it very evocative, I suspect many will have a different experience, certainly mine was different from the guy stood on the tallest pillar with a selfie stick.
We took in Checkpoint Charlie to round out the evening which was the crossing point from the American part of West Berlin into East Berlin. It is now just a small hut in the middle of a busy road but it was once the limit of the western world and the scene of momentous events including a David Hasselhoff concert. I can't help but feel that Berlin needs a museum of fun or a monument to irreverence to provide respite from the dark chapters you see all around.

Probably the best marketing department in the world

Day 3 - Copenhagen

My first new country on the trip (not that I'm, y'know, counting) and a city that Matt, having passed through on the way up had sung the praises of. The Danes are amongst the happiest people in the world and those that aren't happy tend to commit suicide thus removing themselves from the statistics (or is that Swedes? I'm not sure). Certainly the aesthetic qualities of the city ought to keep a person happy, especially if you happen to be male. It is also a place shot through with cycle lanes and vast numbers of residents take to two wheels, woe betide the unwary traveller straying onto their part of the road. The way to Denmark from Sweden is a curious mix of water traversing structures. A bridge begins on the Swedish side before reaching a small island in the middle of the channel and abruptly diving under the ground to become a tunnel. Did each country take responsibility for half the crossing and simply not communicate their intentions? Does the Swedish word for bridge mean tunnel in Danish? Is it a practical solution that doesn't disrupt the flow of shipping? Only actual research can tell us the answer. James was not enjoying being behind the wheel on Copenhagen's complex road network. Surrounded by eminently crushable riders and pedestrians the car made it to the hostel without so much as a screeching brake. Denmark has a markedly different attitude to the drink than Sweden with no minimum age and a culture of public consumption. The hostel had a promising party feel to it, people reclined with giant glasses of hoegaarden in its open front or rested on the communal bed at the back of the bar, I liked it already.
If there is a sight inimitable to Denmark's capital it is the little mermaid. Gifted by the son of the founder of Carlsberg (much of this city has some connection with that family) 102 years ago she has endured a surprisingly torrid history. Beheaded twice, she has also lost an arm, been covered in paint several times, been knocked into the harbour by explosives, been made to hold a dildo and has recently taken to wearing a burqa, perhaps to protect herself from paint. After all those tribulations a person almost feels bad saying she is a bit underwhelming, you wouldn't be on form either if you'd been so relentlessly targeted. But she is placed in a bland spot, the backdrop provided by cruise ships and miscellaneous low-slung buildings. We'd hired bikes to reach her perch and looked like true locals around town, only with less stopping at red lights, more pavement riding and less consideration for other road users, ding. Matt had clothes to wash so left myself and James to bomb around Copenhagen, as much as one can bomb on a bike with a basket, handlebar streamers and spokey-dokeys (OK not the last two but I can dream). Come the evening we ate dinner in Nyhavn which is a picturesque waterfront area once home to Hans Christian Anderson, he of mermaid fame. I tried a smorrebord consisting of herring 3 ways just in case you can't decide how you like it best. We had a few drinks in the hostel bar over one or two games of 'Presidents and Arseholes', or three or four or however many games it takes before the person whom is losing (and is thus doomed) throws a strop and refuses to play the stupid thing anymore. Matt hit the sack while we hit the booze but tiring of snap we inveigled ourselves into a group of 2 American guys and 2 Dutch girls by critiquing their choice of card-based drinking games. What followed is a blur of cards, buses, kraken, i-have-nevers, ice cubes, bed, whiskey, bed and finally sleep. Good night Copenhagen.

No. Reservations.

Day 2 - Jönköping

We left Stockholm and its scenic if somewhat austere environs for a city 200 miles to the south. Jönköping perches on the bottom edge of the country's second biggest lake, Vättern, and is the the home town of such notable persons as Agnetha from Abba, Nina Persson (Cardigans fame) and a man with whom James and I have much in common - Olympic kayaker Anders Gustafsson. Leaving behind the convenience of an H&M on every corner and an off-license never more than an hour's walk away we began the road trip proper. Urban sprawl gave way to endless coniferous forest, clatter and chatter to 101 Party Classics, a 5CD odyssey charting the highs of pop music over the preceding decades. It also, inevitably, included some lows and to counter this we were each granted 5 vetoes. However these were to apply to the entire CD collection in the car which were to be played back to back in strict alphabetical order. Looking at some of the CDs my vetoes would be sorely needed in future hence the fact that UB40's 'Red, red wine' was played in its entirety, a song that is like nails on the chalkboard of my soul, I still rue the decision. Anyway, the wheels turn, the hours pass and the mind wanders, wanders into the forest, to the empty and frozen north where Ringlefinch bend the pines like matchsticks and Jotnar stalk the mountain,  the forgotten places where the old gods hold sway. The Norse have a wonderfully rich mythology and their pantheon of gods has occupied too little of my interest so far. The polytheistic religions, though largely pushed aside, give such an insight in our early understanding of the nature of deities. I so much prefer them to the drab, one-dimensional monotheistic ideas so popular of late. I like my gods to have, for want of a better word, a human side. Let them fight and commit folly, let them be cruel and be kind. Let them teach us something of the reality of life, if nothing else it makes for the best stories.
We found the sparkling edge of Vättern and followed its eastern shore all the way to Jönköping. We headed for the lobby of The Grand Hotel, its shabby elegance was rather becoming but we were just there to pick up keys to our less grand hostel next door. They gave us a stark but spacious room with white linen from IKEA and brown stains from various places. The town itself was quiet apart from a steady stream of people trooping around wearing green boiler suits and shouting about something. But rather than the protest it initially appeared to be, their regular stops at bars suggested some kind of organised pub crawl. Their t-shirts listed suggested activities for the evening, drinking and beer pong amongst them (vomiting and regrettable sex were presumably a given) - students. We three  gentleman travelers pursued more sedate goals, chiefly dinner. How poorly we understood the complexity of our aim. The first restaurant couldn't accommodate us due to a shortage of waiting staff and from then on our hungry quest became a litany of failure as eatery after eatery either ignored us or couldn't seat us at one of their, sometimes numerous, empty tables due to ostensible reservations. There's the Sweden I know and f*****g hate, where's TGI Fridays? After exploring the limits of the cities dysfunctional dining scene we found a Chinese/Japanese/Mongolian place yards from the hostel that was too empty to plausibly deny us. The many miles traveled had taken their toll on our feet so post meal it was time to retire.

Stockholm to home

Day 1 - Stockholm

Road. Trip. Two words whose constituent parts of car, road, here and there are less than the whole. They don't capture the listless miles, the blurred tarmac, the landscape passing on either side like the bars of an equaliser. They don't capture the urge to leave, the limitless reach and limited grasp, the, for want of a better word, romance. Kerouac got it, Hopper and Fonda summed the stateless rebellion of just driving, or in their case riding. Is it more about the dots or the lines? The getting there or the getting there? So...road trip, as good a reason as any to be be getting up at 3am on a nondescript Tuesday to catch the night bus to Gatwick Airport and begin a journey back to England via 11 countries, 12 cities and 2550 miles of road.
I was flying with a friend to meet a friend in  Stockholm. Matt had gone over to compete in a Ironman competition which is a physical epic comprising a ride, a swim and a run. That doesn't do justice to over 10 hours of nonstop exertion which, to me at least, sounds beyond the limits of human capacity. Still, some people get a kick from it, and a wristband, so each to their own. Myself and James are more 'beer at 6AM' sort of guys. 6:25AM to be precise, at which point James said "they'll keep the gate open until 7AM I reckon." This prompted my sudden recall that the flight departed at 6:40AM and so the gate still being open at 7 was unlikely. Queue downed beers and brisk walking. Fortunately the gate was not open (in the literal sense) but not closed (in the some-dickheads-were-even-later-than-us sense). The flight departed some 40 minutes late which would have been an ideal amount of time to visit that whiskey bar we spotted.
"Thonk" - it's Swedish for the hollow sound of a boat striking a ship. Okay so we were in a kayak which I'm not sure is a boat and thus we posed little threat to the 1300 ton steel vessel moored in front of us but since we would be sleeping on it that night sinking the thing would probably forfeit our deposit. We had gone from airport to train station to English pub to the af Chapman a full-rigged sail ship built in 1888 in Cumberland (chief exports - ships and sausages), put into service between Europe, the USA and Australia. Bought by the Swedish navy it was used as a barracks during WWII and now as a youth hostel (run by the tourist board not the military). And after dumping our bags we were on the water again, practically in it. Myself and James had taken a two person kayak, Matt and girlfriend Sally another, a pair of Swedish girls the third and their mother shared the fourth with our guide. James was pilot, I was navigator (apt given that I had the  rudder pedals). I was Goose, he was Maverick. And maverick certainly described our interpretation of the guide's instructions but what we lacked in direction we made up for in knots. However far adrift from the group we found ourselves some Olympic quality synchronised paddling soon saw us rejoin the party, usually via the side of Matt and Sally's kayak. It was a thoroughly enjoyable bit of sightseeing and chicken with cruise ships, 2016 Rio Men's Double Kayak - watch out.
So far the trip had entirely contrasted with my previous one in February of 2007, snow/sun, on bridges/under bridges and now the food. I had found it to be a culinary minefield the last time round, pock-marked by veal and sludge, confusion and dismay, and lingonberries, so many lingonberries. Imagine my surprise and delight, having plunged once more unto the fray of traditional fare, to be given a meal of tasty meatball, potato purée and refreshing lingonberry. And all in a restaurant we found with great ease. My prejudices evaporated quicker than the light beer did. I f*****g love Sweden!
We returned to the boat to shower and change for the evening only to find James's bunk appropriated by some new and absent guest, James had failed to cover it with filthy clothes to secure it. No matter others were free. I was determined to make good use of the dress shoes I had wedged into my backpack given their weight and impracticality. Since we had a car and so little time would be spent with the pack actually on my back I decided such luxuries were permitted. That was after I taken out and left behind my penknife, compass, survival blanket, travel cutlery, collapsible pint glass, hunting knife and kitchen sink (travel size). Car + summer ≠ Bear Grylls time. We strolled through the island of Gamla Stan which is essentially the old town and settled at a restaurant called 'Engelen' which might mean 'England' in Swedish. They had laid their decking with high quality fake grass in homage to the inventors of real grass and namesake of their establishment. I tried the herring and those delicious essentials - potato purée and lingonberries. We had a couple of pints of exceedingly tasty unfiltered beer (Olfilterad Export, try it) before Matt's weary toes (IronMan inflicted) beat a path to their hotel. James and I fancied another one of those beers in a less salubrious venue and spied a likely place. They didn't have the same beer but they did have a large glass contraption on the bar full of a clear liquid that looked intriguing.
"What's that?" say we to the barman with a passing resemblance to Al Murray. "Water" say he
"....for the absinthe"
That nice beer was 5.8% so chasing it with absinthe seemed a great idea. The green fairy charged by the millilitre and while 300 seemed a large shot it was Al's suggestion so we went with it. Patiently we waited as water dripped from ornate taps attached to the contraption through sugar cubes and into our swirling glass of madness beloved of Toulouse-Lautrec, Hemingway, Van Gogh and Wilde. We heaved it down in two mighty gulps. Al returned to our empty glasses remarking "that was meant to be sipped". Classiness 0 British Tourist Stereotypes 1. During the process of preparing our drinks the pub landlord had been distracted by two hot Swedish female customers (disproportionately common here) and hadn't charged us. As as aside he might have saved himself some trouble there as James, pre-trip, had gotten his foreign currency but had asked for krona and krone. Those are the respective currencies of Sweden and Norway and we weren't going to Norway. He should instead have asked for krona and krone, the latter being the currency of Denmark which we were going to. I don't know how someone makes a mistake like that but you could never be certain what form of currency he was going to try to pay with. Anyway we ordered a couple of beers and paid, the cost of the absinthe not having been tacked on. Retiring to the back room which was an odd structure with a pitched roof, dark pine walls and the look of a sauna we debated our options....for leaving without paying. Fortuitously a short while later Al came back to clear glasses and when he got to the rear of the sauna we calmly exited the bar before breaking into a healthy jog through the cobbled streets of the old town, honesty and decency 0, British Tourist Stereotype 2.
Tomorrow the road.