Marienbad Eulogy

Zur deutschen Fassung dieses Artikels.


It seems that the Corona virus will impede long-distance travel for quite a while. In that time of need, maybe we’ll finally discover what has always been so close. Writing for an international audience, it’s hard to generalize what counts as close, of course.

For me, living in Bavaria in Germany, it’s the former Iron Curtain, which is still limiting most Westerners’ travel options like a veil of self-imposed ignorance. Luckily, I have long been more interested in the other side of that curtain. Thus, last summer, when a house-sitting gig got cancelled, I spontaneously jumped on a train and went to the first small town in the Czech Republic, to Marienbad.

Follow me on this journey and get inspired to make some discoveries in your neighborhood as well. Or, if you can’t, use this blog to come along on a virtual journey!


Before we get started, a few words about the name. Of course Marienbad is now Mariánské Lázně. It’s not hard to pronounce, but hard to type without a Czechoslovak keyboard. So, for the international readers I will use the German name, which seems to be more commonly known in English, without wishing to imply any irredentist claims to a Great Germany or Great Austria.

Marianske Lazne Schild

1

My first impression of Marienbad is that it is not a city at all, but rather an enormous park with houses in between.

Haus grün 1
Haus grün 2
Haus grün 3
Haus grün 4
Haus grün 5

Or should I say villas and castles, not houses?

2

The post office looks like a palace.

Post.JPG

This is where I mailed the postcards for you.

The library resides in a castle, as libraries should do everywhere to protect themselves against book burnings.

Bibliothek 2.JPG

Probably even the prison looks majestic here. Unfortunately, I won’t manage to get arrested during my stay in Marienbad, so I cannot report from personal experience.

3

Pavel, from whom I am renting an apartment for a few days, himself came to Marienbad as a visitor, more than ten years ago with his mother from Moscow. The mother liked the spa town so much that she wanted to stay. In order to do so, she had to buy a house, which she converted into a boarding house. As a good son, Pavel joined and supported her. There is something wailing in his voice as he is telling this story.

“It’s a beautiful city to live in,” I try to cheer him up, because that’s the impression I have gotten in the first hours.

“Well, if you’re from Moscow, it’s pretty small and quiet here.”

I think quiet is nice, but if what I see in June is supposed to be the high season, I can imagine that it can get a bit boring in winter. In the Czech Republic, as is well known, much larger cities go into hibernation.

Asked about the seasonal fluctuations, Pavel explains: “January and February are very bad. March is also very bad.” And, after a pause for thought, “April is also really bad. May is a bit better. And from October on, it gets really bad again. The religious festivals are very important, many pilgrims come for them.”

I wouldn’t have expected this at a health resort in the predominantly atheist Czech Republic, but in tourism, you probably have to diversify.

“Most people come to celebrate the day when Jesus was born. How do you call that in English?”

“Christmas.”

“No, the other one. Where he died first and then he was born again.”

Ah, Easter!

4

Well, if religion is so important here, I shall go to church immediately. I will pick the Orthodox one for now.

Kirche außen 1
Kirche außen 2

Because the entrance fee is set so low and because the church is not overrun by visitors, I even refrain from taking out my student card to avail myself of a discount. Hopefully, the Russian Orthodox Church won’t use the one euro to bless weapons in the Donbass.

The church is small but pretty. It is particularly proud of the iconostasis, the three-winged porcelain picture wall, supposedly the largest piece of porcelain in the world.

But I am even more impressed by an icon depicting all the saints of the Orthodox annual calendar, all on the size of one standard piece of paper. Someone must have had a very steady hand and a nanometer-thin brush. Next to the picture, thankfully, there is a magnifying glass, and I decipher the Holy Father Simeon Stylites and his mother, Saint Martha, the martyr Aithalas of Persia, the Holy 40 Female Martyrs and Ammon, the Deacon and their teacher in Heracles in Thrace, the martyr Kallista and her brothers Evodios and Hermogenes from Nicomedia, the Righteous Joshua, the son of Saint Meletios of Greece, the neo-martyr Angelis of Constantinople, Saint Evanthia and the Holy Monk Nicholas of Crete. These are only the stars of September 14th, the first day of the Orthodox liturgical year. And so it continues, 365 times, all in millimetre size. Whoever painted this was more pedantic than artistic.

Ikone.JPG

The photo is blurry, unfortunately, because you are not allowed to take pictures in the church and I didn’t dare to violate this eleventh commandment too openly.

5

Not quite as holy, but also important were the kings and emperors who once gave Marienbad its splendour. At the Hotel Weimar, there is still a sign informing us that King Edward VII of Britain spent several holidays here. Maybe he knew Europe well enough that he would have been against Brexit. Too late.

Klebelsberg
Klebelsberg Edward VII

By the way, this palace is standing empty now, not the only one in the city. This is how the ruins look like in Marienbad. Even abandoned and decaying, they are a hundred times more beautiful than the blocks that contemporary architects want to sell us as apartments or hotels. They should be ashamed of themselves, those concrete botchers!

Napoleon III, Otto I of Greece, the Shah of Persia and Emperor Franz Joseph I also came to Marienbad. Since every royal retinue wanted to be in the limelight, it had to be coordinated between the empires who would spend their holidays where and when. This, by the way, is the historical origin of travel agencies. Before that, in the so-called Migration Period, people had simply gone on uncoordinated road trips.

Once however, in August 1904, there was a misunderstanding or a booking error, or maybe malice. The English king and the Austrian emperor had booked the trip to Marienbad at the same time, both at the Hotel Weimar. When two railroad trains arrived from two different directions with a lot of ballyhoo, the gentleman at the reception started to sweat. Franz Joseph I was not only Emperor of Austria and thus the ruler of Marienbad, he was also quite explicitly King of Bohemia, and therefore the guest with a stronger claim to Kaiserschmarrn and lodging. On the other hand, Edward VII was a regular guest, he had travelled the longer distance and he gave generous tips.

Monarchentreffen2

Ten years later, the discord resulting from this meeting lead to World War I. You know that yourself: A small argument about a towel on a beach chair or about parking in front of the house escalates, then you don’t talk to each other for ten years, and suddenly one of you kills the other. Happens all the time.

6

The whole city is spacious, with wide avenues and cycle paths, huge parks and enough benches for all 12,000 inhabitants to relax at the same time. The communists were really good at urban planning, I’ll give them that.

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Fernuni

Wonderful spots to read, study and smoke cigars. The latter is forbidden in some areas, though, probably because the water-vending clinics do not tolerate the competition of the healthy tobacco fumes.

7

Pavel had warned me about the healing waters. Although they are supposed to cure, they can also kill if the dosage is a little bit off. “The water here is so strong that you must not drink too much. You should consult your doctor before drinking it.”

But the water being properly applied, one would definitely get well, I was assured. Rudolph’s Spring and Ambrose’s Spring supposedly help against anemia and urological complaints. The water from Cross Spring and Ferdinand’s Spring supposedly has both laxative and anti-allergenic effects. Caroline’s Spring and Mary’s Spring would prevent bladder stones. The Forest Spring would free the lungs.

“And you have to use a sippy cup, because otherwise the iron in the water will attack your teeth, and you’ll run around with brown teeth for a month.” A straw would probably do it too, but we know that dolphins and cormorants choke on those. Or a clever cup maker came up with the whole story.

Tassen

The tap water is perfectly okay, by the way, which makes me wonder. Doesn’t all this water come from the same groundwater? How can it cure cancer 200 meters further on when it bubbles out of the tap at home with no extra effect?

At some springs, there are tables with values of different elements that don’t tell me anything because I don’t know whether 141 magnesium or 0.103 zinc in water is good or bad, which values are normal and what unit of measurement they even pretend to use. To me, it seems like charlatanry with charades and logogriphs.

Wasserwerte

8

For those who do not believe in the healing power of water, there is the “Beer Spa”, a decadent bath in beer.

5.-beer-bath

This is nothing for me, because I like neither beer, nor advertising with half-naked people. (I am however going to meet the lady in the bathtub in chapter 38, after all.)

9

About 45% of the visitors in Marienbad seem to come from Germany, another 45% from Russia, and the rest from all over the world. And they are mainly older guests. Only the Asians are lowering the average age. They also bring a bit of style, which is sorely needed among all the short-trousered Germans and Russians.

When visiting a country that was once occupied by the Nazis (which means almost all of Europe), I always have some inhibitions about speaking German, so after the Czech greetings, I switch to English. Most of the time I get an answer in German right away. Tourism heals wounds. Or maybe it just covers them up.

10

As the clock strikes the full hour, the fountain in front of the Colonnade frightens me with kitschy music. More spa town kitschy than capital city kitschy, so not as bad as in Skopje. But nothing more than shallow fountain music.

11

The building behind the fountain, the Colonnade, is something like the symbol of Marienbad. Although its purpose is not quite clear, I am always drawn to it. It is a long, slightly curved hall that is largely open to one side. If you stroll in it or drink a coffee, you feel half inside and half outside, a nice in-between feeling. And the metal construction gives you an Eiffel Tower feeling, without any queues, expensive entrance fees or fear of heights.

Kollonade 1
Kollonade 2
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Kollonade10
Kollonade11

12

One day, something is happening, but I don’t understand what it is. Groups of girls are performing some circus show, swirling sticks through the air. Judging by their bonnets, they are either bakery saleswomen or a communist youth organization.

Bäckerinnen

13

You wouldn’t expect it from a traditional and dignified spa town with visitors who are mostly in their third stage of life, but the mayor of Marienbad is a member of the Pirate Party.

And while other countries throw tons of money at desperate attempts to increase the share of electric mobility, Marienbad has long been using electric buses and police cars.

Bus Elektro Marienbad
Polizei E-Auto

14

The most important landmark in Marienbad when asking or, as happens more often, being asked for directions, is the traffic light at the intersection of Chebská with the main road. There is only one traffic light in the whole town, and it is proudly marked on the map.

15

Although the healing springs all work wonders, they are marketed differently. Cross Spring, for example, is covered by a classicist temple, which is only open during the day. This is probably the healing water for wealthy private patients.

Kreuzquelle1
Kreuzquelle2

Alexandra’s Spring, on the other hand, is open around the clock, making it something like the emergency pharmacy among the healing springs. It is also free of charge, so I can finally try some water myself.

Alexandra Quelle.JPG

Eeewwww! If there weren’t sick people standing around the spring, whose last hope rests in these gulps, I would spit it out again. I’ve never drunk water tasting so horrible! The water is dripping with sulphur. Devil’s Spring would be a more suitable name.

The only tasty fountain in the city, as far as I have tried, – my desire for further attempts was not very pronounced after Sulphur Spring, and only the journalistic mission kept me going – is the spring at the entrance to the large park opposite the King and Kaiser statues (see chapter 5). Here, the water tingles and tastes like mineral water. Here, one can fill the bottle for a hike.

16

When visiting a health resort, a box of cigars has to come along, that much I remember from the Magic Mountain.

Zigarren im Rucksack

When I sit in the park with an aromatic Maria Mancini, it should attract the Russian oligarchs who are now being spurned by the FPÖ. This will lead to interesting conversations, adding the necessary spice to this report. That’s the plan, at least.

In fact, it only attracts a young lady who immediately makes herself unpopular with unsolicited advice: “Smoking is not good for your health!”

“It makes me happy, and happiness is an important component of health,” I explain.

Turns out she knows more about health than I do. She is a doctor, has just been transferred to the hospital in nearby Cheb/Eger, and is in Marienbad for the first time. This allows me to make myself popular with unsolicited advice about where to go and what to do in Marienbad.

And I finally have a competent person for the question that has plagued me all the time: “Say, this alleged healing water, is that based on science or just a marketing hoax?”

“People here believe that water cures them?” she asks in horror.

“Oh yes. The whole town is built on that.”

“And I thought it was only back home where people believed such nonsense. That it still exists in Europe …” Ipeleng is from Botswana, which sends doctors around the world as part of its development aid. (Given that Botswana is less corrupt and more democratic than the Czech Republic, sending politicians, civil servants and judges would also be a welcome move).

Cheb is a little bit far from Gaborone, but anyone who works in the public sector in the South African country is used to it. The European colonial states had drawn arbitrary borders in which people of different ethnicities, languages and cultures were suddenly one state, but had no common identity. When Botswana became independent in 1966, it had in mind the experience of the Congo, of Mali, of Nigeria, where conflicts and civil wars broke out after independence. So the Botswana government came up with a simple idea: teachers, doctors, police officers would be transferred to other areas of the country every few years, so that people from different ethnic groups could come into contact with each other, perhaps start families, and thus create a Botswana identity.

“I was once transferred to a hospital nine hours away from my home town,” says the doctor. “In some cases, that’s hard, especially for relationships. But it’s good for the country and the community, because that way we get to know each other instead of having prejudices about each other.” We should have done the same in Germany after reunification, I am thinking.

In the later course of the conversation, Ipeleng repeatedly asks me to drink water instead of cola on such a hot day because the refreshing fizzy drink is diuretic, whatever that’s supposed to mean. Apparently, even she is deeply involved in the water industry, like everyone else here.

17

By the way, Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain is the perfect book for a stay in Marienbad. There, a resourceful doctor, who is more of a businessman than a physician, sells fresh air. Here, the spa doctors sell tap water. Here as there, the healing effect of the stay, if at all, results from staying in a somewhat secluded place, surrounded by beautiful nature. Here and there, even the most theoretical healing effect is overcompensated by sumptuous cakes.

Another vice in Marienbad is gambling. I would love to investigate these financial institutions, but I lack the funds to post the required deposit. There would be a spring in Karlovy Vary/Karlsbad that helps against poverty, it is said. I should have gone there first.

18

As I already know the Magic Mountain, I took Thomas Mann’s novel about Goethe, Lotte in Weimar, with me. There, the poet says:

Holy water, pure and cold – holy not less in thy soberness than is the boon-and-blessing, sun-and-fire-combining gift of the vine! Hail, water!

Goethe did visit Marienbad several times, and the city makes absolutely certain that you won’t fail to notice that: The square in front of the palace-like Hotel Royal is called Goethe Square, and in front of it there is a statue of Goethe, even if it is no longer the original, which was melted into cannons during the Second World War.

Goethestatue fern
Goethestatue nah
Goethestatue alt

The Goethe Stela at Goethe’s Place points out Goethe’s View.

Goethe Säule

The town museum is located in Goethe House, but more about that in chapter 37, and everywhere it is mentioned what Goethe did where and when, what he ate, and what he said. No wonder that he got annoyed by the fuss made about him. The following year, he booked a package holiday to Italy instead.

19

As bloggers do, Goethe took note of everything that happened to him, planning to use it for future articles. So when a date went badly, he turned it into a turgid poem, the Marienbad Elegy. Fed up with the constant questions about how things were in Marienbad, he wrote an article, not without mentioning his hobby, which no one else was interested in: “Marienbad in general and especially with regard to geology”. Lucky you, because in my case, the hobby is history instead of earth science.

20

However, Marienbad does not appropriate the same attention and appreciation to the other artists who inspired each other here, possibly with the exception of Fryderyk Chopin, for whom there is a festival every August. Richard Wagner could have had that as well. Along with Bayreuth, he had Marienbad in the final selection for the venue of his festival. But in the end, Bohemia couldn’t pay any subsidies, because these had all been paid to Andrej Babiš.

Anton Bruckner, Johann Strauss and Antonín Dvořák also hung out in Marienbad. The latter even wrote a piece for the singing fountain.

Plenty of writers showed up, too, but they came in the cheaper off-season. Less distraction is better for writing. In addition to Übergoethe, Adalbert Stifter, Henrik Ibsen, Arthur Schnitzler, Stefan Zweig (who dedicated a chapter in Shooting Stars: 10 Historical Miniatures to the Marienbad Elegy, which seems slightly exaggerated to me, but maybe Goethe wrested it from him at the poker table), Maxim Gorki, Nikolai Gogol, Ivan Goncharov, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Jan Neruda, Rudyard Kipling and Mark Twain visited Marienbad before me. I would not be surprised if the latter wrote just as mockingly about the water cure.

But the most skeptical of all was Franz Kafka:

F. kindly picked me up from the train station in Marienbad, but still a desperate night in an ugly room facing the courtyard. Unhappy night. Impossible to live with F. Unbearable to live with anyone. Not regretting it; regretting the impossibility of not being alone.

Moved to an extraordinarily beautiful room on Monday, now staying at nothing less than “Balmoral Castle”. And there I will try to cope with the holiday, beginning with the not quite successful treatment of the headache.

For writers, it should be obvious that it is better to travel and to live alone.

21

Friday night at 8 pm, and there is no action, nowhere, just as Pavel lamented. The young people are probably all on the express train to Pilsen or to Prague. And the older spa guests are already in bed.

My age is exactly in the middle between the two groups and I have the whole town to myself.

Park allein 1
Park allein 2
Park allein 3
Park allein 4
Park allein 5
Park allein 6
Park allein 7

22

Marienbad is one of the few places that had more tourists a hundred years ago than today.

Touristen vor 100 J
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And this in a town which may soon be a UNESCO world heritage site!

UNESCO Kandidatur Marienbad

You can only find this in Eastern Europe. But then, even in Marienbad the travel agencies have posters of Neuschwanstein and Paris in their windows, instead of Novy Afon and Peleș, driving people in the wrong direction. Be smarter than the masses!

keine Touristen.JPG

23

The only guy enjoying the park with me is General Patton, the old warhorse.

Patton

If his presence puzzles you, I know that you have not read my article about Pilsen (especially chapters 46-53, only available in German so far). However, in Czechoslovakian times, the citizens and visitors of Marienbad were not supposed to know that they had been liberated by the US Army instead of the Red Army. Thus, in 1976 a monument was erected to the Soviet liberators who had not liberated anyone here.

Lesson: Don’t trust everything you see.

24

Another example:

Hamelika

The ruins of Hamelika Castle, overlooking Marienbad, aren’t real ruins and there was never a real castle. They were already built that way in 1876. Decaying walls and ruins were fashionable at the time and were considered romantic. Naturally, this desire to see destruction and ruins led to World War I.

25

At the time, the main street was called Kaiser Street.

ak-ansichtskarte-marienbad-tschechien-boehmen-kaiserstrasse-kat-marianske-lazne

On the upper left you can see the Russian Orthodox Church, and the bigger building on the lower left with the two towers, well, that doesn’t exist anymore. It was the synagogue that burned down completely during the pogrom in November 1938. Only one month before, Marienbad and the Sudetenland had been granted to the German Reich in the Munich Agreement.

Opposite the former location of the synagogue, this is commemorated by a memorial stone, albeit only since 2015.

Gedenkstein Synagoge Marienbad.JPG

What Marienbad did with the place of the former synagogue is a much more poignant memorial, though. They have left the gap on the main boulevard. Much simpler than any monument, but a very effective symbol for what is missing.

Baulücke

26

By the way, the Sudeten Germans did not need the invasion of the Wehrmacht in 1938 to become Nazis. Like many Germans living abroad, they did so voluntarily and with great enthusiasm.

One of the first known victims of National Socialism, the writer Theodor Lessing, was shot dead by three assassins in Marienbad as early as August 1933.

27

I notice that you are not in the mood for assassinations and anti-Semitism, but rather for woods and hiking.

Just outside of Marienbad, there is Slavkov Forest or the Emperor’s Forest, a huge area with hiking trails in all directions, well signposted, as always in the Czech Republic.

Wegweiser

Between the woods, there are clearings and lakes, also moorlands, sometimes a small chapel or a cottage in the middle of all the green.

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Natur2
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And in Kladská, there is a hunting cottage in Alpine style, the first proper stop on my several-hour hike. Prince Schönburg-Waldenburg had it built in the 19th century to hunt deer, stags and wild boar.

Kladska Gebäude 3

There is not much hunting happening now, but in the U Tetřeva Inn (named after the wood grouse), they still have food and rooms for overnight stays. A single room costs 30 €, I read in the menu, looking for something sweet. Unfortunately, the weather forecast for the rest of the week is full of rain, otherwise I would spend a few internet-free days here in the middle of the forest.

Wirtshaus1
Wirtshaus2

28

Nearby there is a lake, surrounded by a path of wooden planks. Always as close to the shore as possible, wide as a promenade and wheelchair accessible. As I attempt to leave the wooden path, I immediately realize its importance. The ground gives way several centimetres, and if I stepped even further away, I would probably sink into the bog.

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Holzweg 2
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Then I discover a piece of shore suitable for staying, with a view to an island just large enough to live on. At least for a person like me who doesn’t need much stuff. Too bad I don’t know how to swim.

Insel

Let me rest here and transfer the observations and thoughts of the last few hours into my notebook, for them to delight the worldwide readership, instead of leaving this task for the evening, when I will fall into bed exhausted and the memories will secretly, quietly and silently disappear, as thousands of their unfaithful colleagues have done before.

29

A Czech lady is walking friends from Germany around the lake, telling them that Czech universities are stretching the curriculum for Turkish students to extend the length of their studies: “We are doing everything we can to ensure that they don’t have to go back to Erdoğan”. Sometimes you learn more from listening to other people’s conversations than from newspapers.

As they are walking past me, the professor proudly says: “You see, young people in the Czech Republic are creative, they write, they paint, they make music.” Usually, I am a relentless fighter for truth, but now, I cannot correct the misconception about my age and background. Otherwise it would become obvious that I had been eavesdropping. I don’t want to awake any StB trauma.

Zigarre am Glatzen-See

And she’s right. On my visits to our neighbouring country, I have also noticed that fewer people than in Germany (and even fewer than in North America, for example) are driven to work as much as possible, just in order to buy the biggest possible cars and houses. Many of them are interested in other things, in artistic or intellectual activity, in social commitment, impressively demonstrated by the protests against abuse of power and corruption, or they like to go hiking, fishing and camping. In chapter 31 of my article on Pilsen I had already suspected that the low unemployment rate contributes to a certain relaxation when it comes to planning one’s life. But it must be something else, an appreciation of intellectual pursuits, which I have also noticed in other post-communist societies.

Bücher auf Balkon

The era of the writer as president is over, but at the last Leipzig Book Fair, 60 Czech authors were introduced to the German market, some in translation, some circumventing the need for translation by writing in German. Another example that continues to have an impact: since 1919, every municipality in Czechoslovakia, no matter how small the village, was required by law to have at least one public library. Although this no longer applies since 2001, the Czech Republic still has the highest library density in the world. And, last but not least: even restaurants in the Czech Republic are named after literary figures

30

Suddenly I hear loud grunting and smacking in the bushes.

A wild boar!

But no, it was just someone pressing the button for the boar sound on one of the information boards. The dogs running past are even more scared than I am. Fortunately, nobody pressed the button for the rattlesnake sound.

31

In order to get out of the geographical vicious circle of walking around the Emperor’s Lake all the time, I cut into the bushes at one of the branching streams, curious to see where the water will take me.

Soon, the stream turns out to be a canal, dead straight and with a raised and clearly visible path on the right side. Sporadically, fallen trees block my impetuous walk, but then I simply jump to the other side of the canal, which gives you a good indication about its width.

Kanal1
Kanal2
Kanal3

Wide it is not, but long it is. Slavkov Forest is criss-crossed by a system of canals, which is related to tin mining, the operation of mills and the transport of wood. The engineering masterpiece, with a complicated network of communicating canals, more than 30 km in total, was already laid out in the 16th century.

For about two hours, I am walking along the canals. They still carry water and look as if they would work just fine. I don’t meet a single soul, although the sunny weather is perfect for a Sunday walk. Only a few deer, looking up curiously and running away. And I hear a cuckoo, this time the real one, not the one from the tape.

32

Slowly, the forest opens up and I am looking over wide fields, beautiful hills, and the grass and purple flowers swaying in the cooling breeze.

Felder1

To be honest, I think I got lost. Until I discover a prominent hill with three crosses. That should be on the map. Indeed: tři kříže. Damn it, I have been wandering further and further away from Marienbad. Now, I have to walk back another 14 km, although I am not in the mood for more exercise. It has been a hot day.

Drei Kreuze

But while I’m here, let me climb Golgotha Hill. A Czech family is trying to decipher the inscription, which dates from 1849 and is in German.

Drei Kreuze detail

33

On the way back, I pass through Prameny. The village shows what Marienbad would look like if it had not been renovated after communism.

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The saint guarding the bridge has lost his hands, but otherwise it is well preserved. The inscription in German informs me that the place was once called Sangerberg. So this is one of those places from which the Germans were expelled after 1945 and which then partly fell into disrepair. Not because there was a curse on them, but because the area near the border in Czechoslovakia was often reserved for military purposes rather than for living.

Nepomuk

Thus, the number of inhabitants has shrunk from more than 2000 to 109 people living in houses which have become too big for them. Like the other health resorts in the area, Prameny also wanted to tap a mineral spring, but the project turned out to be too ambitious and the municipality remained with debts of 1.2 million euros. That’s a lot for 109 people. Under these circumstances, no candidate for mayor was found in the December 2009 elections, and the village was placed under government administration. Strangely enough, the Sudeten Germans, who have been mourning the loss of their homeland for 70 years, did not want to return after all. Maybe people aren’t that emotionally attached to the field where their ancestors came from, after all.

I, for one, am moving on quickly, not that someone will spot me and call out: “Hey, there’s a guy who looks like he has no work. Let’s make him mayor!”

34

It’s another 10 km to Marienbad, the sun is high in the sky, and I didn’t dare to knock on any door in Prameny/Sangerberg to fill my water bottle, because one thing is still very German about the village: Every garden is guarded by an aggressive dog.

What’s the solution? Hitchhiking, of course! The fourth car stops, but admittedly not because of me. Two girls are checking the map, apparently lost. I look at the number plate and can’t believe the amazing coincidence: Like me, they are from Amberg-Sulzbach County in Germany. That’s a good reason to approach them and ask them where they need to go.

“We are looking for the easiest way back to Hirschau.”

Well, that doesn’t really go via Marienbad. But it wouldn’t be much of a detour either. I explain my situation, and the two girls say right away: “Then we’ll take you to Marienbad!” The world is such a good place.

They are visiting the region regularly, it turns out. The grandparents of one of them were expelled from this beautiful region to barren Upper Palatinate after the Second World War.

This time, they came to the Emperor’s Forest to look for the inn in Nimrod that their grandparents told them about. It had existed since the 18th century and had served its Kaiserschmarrn even to royal guests.

When they found it, there was an enormous pile of rubble in the forest. The dredger operator told them that they had arrived three days late. The historic buildings had just been demolished.

Nimrod alt
Nimrod Ruine

We all agree that’s a pity. We also agree, by the way, that it is a bit of a shame for us Germans that many Czechs speak German very well, and on the other side of the border hardly any schools teach the language of the neighbouring country.

On the short trip together, I forgot to ask them for their names, but I would like to thank the two young ladies for saving me about three hours of arduous walking!

35

After the day’s hike, I go to the park in the evening, treating myself to a Churchill-sized cigar.

A German family is passing by (you can tell the Germans by the fact that the man is pushing the pram), and the father expresses his horror at his wife and daughter, whom he apparently does not trust to be observant enough: “Look at that person, he is smoking a cigar.”

“Would you like one?” I offer.

“No,” he shouts as if in protest, “it smells terrible.”

Ten minutes later, a man sits down next to me on the bench, although there are several free benches all around.

“здравствуйте,” he introduces himself. He’s about my age, with a well-groomed beard and a friendly, attractive appearance.

“здравствуйте.” A handshake signals that I don’t mind the company and am ready to interrupt the reading for a chat.

In a mixture of Russian, Czech and German, as is customary in Central Europe, we have a very limited conversation. He is visibly interested in the cigar and I offer him a puff. He insists that I try his Marlboro in return.

Unfortunately I cannot explain in Russian that cigars are not to be inhaled. Too late! He can’t stop coughing, looks like he is dying. Now, where is the doctor when you need her? I notice that she forgot to give me her phone number. My new friend indicates that he feels very dizzy.

“Yes, it works like alcohol.”

“Like a whole bottle of vodka,” he specifies. “Or rather like a bottle of vodka and a few beers together.”

Speaking of vodka, he takes a bottle out of his denim jacket and offers me a sip. We are drinking straight from the bottle like teenagers who have known each other for a long time.

He wants to take another puff from the cigar and almost collapses again. His eyes are turning red. He can’t believe how I can smoke the cigar so easily. He probably thinks I have lungs of steel.

After he has taught me a few more words in Ukrainian, he urgently has to say goodbye. Too bad, because the vodka was good. Hopefully he won’t feel too bad at night! But his goodbye handshake is still as strong as was his first one, so I think he will survive.

If these two encounters are symptomatic, then I prefer the Russians or Ukrainians over the Germans.

36

Shortly after the vodka has left, the music fountain strikes again. Tonight, it plays the Exodus soundtrack.

This reminds me that I wanted to go to the museum to learn more about the people represented by the gap in chapter 25.

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Given the local Goethemania, the fact that the city museum is housed in Goethe House is not surprising. And indeed, the writer lived in this house in 1823. Some of the rooms still contain the furniture of that time, others contain facsimiles of his manuscripts, and cute dolls reenact historical encounters.

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In the section about the town history, I am struck by how small Marienbad was until recently. The town was only founded in 1808, before that, there was an uninhabited, inhospitable gorge.

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But already in 1818, it became a spa town, and soon a world-famous one. Quite a career. Or as Goethe wrote in 1820:

Then I visited Marienbad, a new important institution […]. The architects and the gardener know their trade and are used to working with a free mind. The latter, one can easily see, has imagination and practice, he doesn’t ask what the terrain looks like, but what it should look like. Removing and filling landscape doesn’t bother him. I felt as if I was in the loneliness of North America, where forests are cut down to build a new city in three years.

Another push was brought by the railway, which, from 1872, connected the small town directly with Prague, something that today’s visitors still benefit from.

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The museum includes a huge cinema, and although I am the only visitor on this early morning, the museum lady asks if I would like to see a film about the short history of the city. Of course I would!

The film offers an interesting overview of the founding history, maybe with a little bit too much detail, like this article. Once it approaches the 20th century, I am thinking: “Now it’s getting exciting”, but the German occupation is dealt with by saying that Marienbad was a military hospital during the Second World War. And then the war is already over. No invasion, no Holocaust, no expulsion of the Sudeten Germans, nothing.

And from 1948 on, everything is happy hunky dory: “The healing springs and spas were nationalized and thus made available to the working people of Czechoslovakia.” Yay, the big hotels are now in the hands of the proletariat! The film dates from 1987.

It’s the same in the whole museum: a lot about the spas, about the famous guests and of course about the healing power of water. Oh, and the lady in the bathtub apparently not only works at the “Beer Spa” (see chapter 8), but has long been part of Marienbad marketing for machos.

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39

What I did miss in the museum, though, was information about the former synagogue and, which would be very interesting in a spa town, about the phenomenon of resort anti-Semitism in general. Because when Germans and Austrians went on holiday, they didn’t forget to pack their anti-Semitism, and that was true long before National Socialism.

In Marienbad and the other spa towns in the region (Karlsbad/Karlovy Vary and Franzensbad/Františkovy Lázně), a Bohemian peculiarity, the so-called winter anti-Semitism, occurred. This refers to the anti-Semitism of the hotel and restaurant operators, which they shelved, for business reasons, during the summer months and only reactivated at the end of the season. If Wagner had known that, maybe he would have stayed in Marienbad after all.

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Each time I walk past the city theatre, it is closed.

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That’s too bad, because it would be nice from the inside too.

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Hence I miss the exhibition of “Masters of the Bohemian-Moravian Hills”, which is on display during the breaks of the theatre performances.

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41

Speaking of hills: If anyone feels deterred by the long walk through the Emperor’s Forest, don’t be! Around Marienbad, there are also several shorter hikes of a few kilometres. One of them, the Metternich hiking trail, runs mostly through the forest, offering protection from the sun. It’s a relaxed morning in a quiet forest.

And here is one spring where the water does seem to be of different composition, for it is as red as blood.

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42

The hike leads past the cemetery, which, as befits a spa town, is located sufficiently outside so that those hoping for recovery are not confronted with the probability of death. Because with death in mind, not even the placebo effect of the water treatment would work.

In the cemetery, I find traces of the German-speaking past, but also signs that the descendants have long left Marienbad. Most of the graves are overgrown.

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A war memorial shows how pointless heroism can be: A column commemorates “the fallen heroes of the 1914-18 World War”, concealing the fact that the country for which they died no longer existed at the end of that war.

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43

More beautiful monuments of past times are the houses in the second and third rows behind Kaiser Street.

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The cars from that time seem to receive more love and care.

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The whole week I’ve been wondering why I like Marienbad so much that I wouldn’t mind staying here for a bit longer. It is beautifully green and spacious. I like to see all the gradations of decay and reconstruction, like a cross-section through the centuries. A place in the Czech Republic that grew up in Austria and where German and Russian are now spoken quite naturally, it is also very European. And I like places that used to be bigger, more important and more significant than now, where you walk around between magnificent architecture like in a sweater that’s too wide, but still more comfortable than all those sweaters that fit like a glove.

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But Marienbad also offers something special: The city was built for kings, for the rich and for the famous. And now it is open to everyone, even for relatively little money, because the kings are beheaded, the rich do not find Central Europe ostentatious enough, and the famous have no taste anymore. Here, I can feel a little sublime, although I am just a simple citizen, a student even.

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Practical Advice:

  • Marienbad Is well connected by train, either via Marktredwitz and Eger/Cheb or from Prague or Pilsen. By the way, tickets in the Czech Republic are much cheaper, so it is better to buy only the outward journey in Germany or Austria. From Amberg to Marienbad, for example, the outward journey cost 28 € (Bayern-Böhmen-Ticket, whereby the second passenger would get away much cheaper), and the return journey on the same route cost 259 Czech crowns (about 10 €).
  • Buses leave from Marienbad to all towns and villages in the area, even to Kladská in Slavkov Forest.
  • Pavel, the extremely helpful and informative young man, is renting out Apartment Maria as well as several apartments in Villa Shafaly. If you use Booking.com via this link, you will get a discount of 15 €. Not only in Marienbad, but worldwide.
  • If you rather try AirBnB, you can use this link to save 25 €.

Links:

Oops, that turned into something long. Now you know why I don’t even start writing about big cities like Prague or Rome. But if the article helped you a little bit with your travel planning, I would be very happy about your support for this blog. Thank you!

Posted in Czech Republic, Health, History, Music, Photography, Travel | Tagged , | 17 Comments

Pizza Consultation

Zur deutschen Fassung dieser Geschichte.


I called the pizza place to order a Big American pizza.

Deviating from the usual procedure, the woman from the pizzeria did not accept the order with joy. Instead, she became rather serious:

“Well, about the Big American, I have to tell you something.”

“Yes?”

“It’s not really a creation of ours. We kept it on the menu after buying the business last year, because some of our customers like it.”

Yeah, I’d like to try it too, I thought.

But the woman warned me: “This pizza has everything on it, so many ingredients. All together in one pizza!”

I knew that. I had checked the menu and had made the decision based on a very hungry stomach.

While I was still thinking about what she was getting at, it became clear: “If you like, I can prepare a Big American pizza for you. It’s your decision. But I don’t think you are going to like it that much.”

I had never gotten the impression that she knew me that well, because we had only met a few times when I’d picked up previous pizzas, ordered, by the way, without any problems. I always pick up food myself, because I find this whole delivery business a bit presumptuous and upper-class. There is hardly a more visible degradation of a human being to a pure workhorse than to let someone else drive food around in a snowstorm, to open the door impatiently, to allow a short glimpse into the warm and cozy home, and to send the guy back out into the human and meteorological cold immediately after taking the warm cardboard box from him. Moreover, here on Faial, I live on a very steep path that I wouldn’t want any delivery guy on a bicycle to have to tackle, especially as he, should he miss the little house that I am currently occupying, would be heading straight for a dangerous volcano. I don’t deem my time to be more valuable than the time of another human being, and that is why nobody else should be sweating on their bike, just to save myself half an hour of walking. Besides, I don’t like waiting at home, not being able to go to the bathroom fully relaxed.

“As I said, it’s your decision,” the pizza baker interrupted my sociocritical train of thought.

I ordered a bacon pizza instead, picked it up, took it to a field, leaned against a bale of hay and ate it with delightful pleasure, looking at the sea and the bacon-providing cows.

The pizza place had probably just run out of corn.

Links:

Posted in Azores, Food, Portugal | Tagged | 5 Comments

Message in a Bottle (from the Azores)

Zur deutschen Fassung dieses Artikels.


If you are stuck on an island in the Atlantic Ocean long enough, stories of Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne and Astrid Lindgren come to mind. Especially when the mail boat apparently don’t sail, because not a single rescue package with books and cigars has arrived.

Like the shipwrecked guys in novels, I too – what a coincidence – still have some paper and ink and a bottle of brandy at hand, which I just emptied. As you know, I’m rather sceptical about technology, so the idea of writing and sending a message in a good old bottle is appealing.

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Already as a child, I had toyed with this idea. Perusing the atlas, that constant igniter of wanderlusty dreams, I discovered that the creek in my village in Bavaria flows into the Vils, the Vils into the Naab, the Naab into the Danube and the Danube into the Black Sea. It struck me as rather romantic to write a message to strangers who would fish it out of the sea in Sevastopol, in Samsun or in Sukhumi a few months later. At that time, I still collected stamps and was hoping for a colourful philatelistic reply.

Unfortunately, I had to find out that the small stream leading out of the village was soon blocked in its free flow by weirs, locks and dams and the prose-filled bottle kept getting stuck, not having seen much of the world. “What a sardonic metaphor for my own imprisonment in this sea-less province,” complained the then eight-year-old me, because that’s how children used to talk before the internet, when we still honed our vocabulary and style with real books.

But now I’m in the Azores, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Nothing can impede the path of the bottle from here. The thermohaline circulation of the North Atlantic Current may carry it as far as Iceland, Norway, Greenland or Svalbard. Or maybe the Gulf Stream, the Azores Stream and the Canary Current will snatch it and take it to the Cape Verde Islands or to the coast of Mauritania or to Dakar, where other people inconveniently travel by car.

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I drink lots of coke, but a plastic bottle seems stylishly deficient for this project. And maybe the mail will float around the oceans for so long that plastic will be banned at the time of delivery. Luckily, I just emptied a bottle of anise schnapps whose label even refers to the Azores.

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I write a short letter and walk down to the coast to set the bottle onto its orbit around the Earth. Which is not that easy, it turns out. I’m so high above the sea that the bottle will probably smash on the rocks when I really want it to hit the water. I am not an Olympic long-distance throwing champion, after all.

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So, for a tiny project with very little chance of success, I walk along the coast for several miles and hours, which is another suitable metaphor for my life, until I spot a suitable place.

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Yes, here I can climb down the cliffs, jump from rock to rock and then from the furthermost outpost of the island, I can drop the bottle into the sea as easily as if I dropped it into a mailbox.

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However, the ocean does not like the idea at all. It rages ever wilder and more violently. When the threatening gestures don’t work, it surrounds me from all sides. I am just about to put the letter into the bottle when my outpost, which I had believed to be safe, is completely flooded by water.

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“Maybe this is a little bit dangerous,” I would think to myself, if I still could think at all. But now, it’s a matter of survival and a split-second decision. I hold on to the bottle, for which I have been risking my life, as I let myself fall into the water, exactly as the next tsunami wave sweeps over me. Thus, I hope to get washed up on the cliffs instead of being dragged out to sea.

What else could I do? Nobody knows the schedule for the tides. And if I sit around on a rock cut off from the mainland until dark, I might even get bored and – who knows -get stupid ideas.

To make a long story short: I survived. Actually, it was even kind of refreshing. But the aniseed bottle broke, and all I have left of it is a sliced right hand. Luckily, I still had a beer bottle in my backpack, although it looks much less representative. And whether the regrafted crown cork will hold until Antarctica, I am not so sure. But for the minute or so that I can still see it, it doesn’t sink.

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And now it’s time to be patient. The record for the longest floating message in a bottle, which was eventually found, is 132 years. If mine were to take that long, I wouldn’t be around, but with my 44 years or so, I can sit back and relax for a few decades.

I’m going to cut short the strenuous climb back up the cliffs. As I am lying in the meadow, exhausted and bleeding, but soaking up the warming sun, I am still angry about the lost bottle. At home, I still have glasses of cucumber and pepperoni, I remember. With their screw tops, they must surely be watertight. But the next letters will have to wait until I will be in Horta, where there is a harbour and even a small beach.

Links:

If you don’t want to rely on chance to find my bottle, or if you don’t live by the sea, I will be happy to send you a postcard from the Azores instead. Okay, not to everyone, but to supporters of this blog.

Posted in Azores, Photography, Portugal, Travel | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

The End of the World

Zur deutschen Fassung dieses Artikels.


Fim do Mundo, the end of the world, nothing more than a self-mocking name for a bar in a small village on a small island. One might think.

Fim do Mundo

If one didn’t know that in Norte Pequeno it’s true. In two ways. One of them intentional, the other one not.

Older nautical charts already had the Azores marked as vague spots in the sea or as remnants of Atlantis, but only from 1427 on the islands were properly discovered. From a European point of view, they marked the end of the world, the end of the Atlantic Ocean, the point of last return to avoid falling off the edge of the planet.

Only when Christopher Columbus came to the Azores and was disappointed that he couldn’t enslave anyone here, he took a defiant wrong turn and thus found America. Yay!

So much for the intended allusion of the name Fim do Mundo.

What the creative coffee roaster, who opened this bar shortly after Columbus’ visit, could not have guessed: Soon, the end of the world would indeed come over this northwestern corner of the island of Faial.

A dark end.

A violent end.

But, to set up a cheap arc of suspense, I am already alluding to something that I don’t know myself as I am leaving the bar. I want to set off for the old end of the world. On foot, because it’s only two kilometres to the west coast of Faial. “You can take your time”, the other guests in the bar joked when I announced my walking plan, “there is a lighthouse at the end of the island. So you’ll even find your way in darkness.”

The path is called the Trail of the Ten Volcanoes, and I guess I have entered it at the seventh or eight volcano. Compared to the first, largest, central volcano, the fiery hills are smaller, but ascending and descending them still takes a toll on me.

The last volcano is the hardest, not only because I’m getting tired, but because it seems to be a rather fresh one. My boots find no tread on solid rock between green plants, sinking in the ash instead.

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Looking back, the difference becomes obvious. Pitch black here, green there. Ash here, earth there. Bald emptiness here, lush vegetation there. But don’t worry, little volcano, in a few thousand years, flowers will adorn you too!

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Only around the lighthouse, a few bushes grow, as if to hide the longed-for goal from me. Lighthouse means coast, means edge of the island, means end of the walk. I will knock on the door to ask for an ice cream or a beer.

Nobody is home.

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Something else strikes me: The island isn’t really over yet. There’s another volcano, a rather large one. It’s not marked on the map. I didn’t take a wrong turn and end up on a different island, did I?

Capelinhos Blick auf Vulkan (1)
Capelinhos Blick auf Vulkan (2)

An old man is leaning against a wooden railing in front of the lighthouse. I ask him: “Say, what’s the name of that volcano in front of us?”

“This is Capelinhos.”

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I am squinting at the map, but the volcano just doesn’t want to appear on paper. I don’t want to ask stupid questions. Luckily, the gentleman, who probably used to be a navigator for captains who kept getting lost, realizes the situation: “Maybe you are using an old map?”

Well, one from World War II.

“Capelinhos is a new volcano, it won’t be on your map.” Now he looks happy, being able to explain something to a stranger. If I had known how long the story would take, I would have sat down, but at least I can warn you now. Prepare yourself a cup of hot chocolate or a gin and tonic.

His story begins in September 1957: “Back then, we had two hundred earthquakes in two weeks,” he says, repeating: “Two hundred!” What should have been a warning from Mother Earth led to people getting used to it. Whenever it shook and rumbled, a house collapsed or someone fell into a crevice, they just looked up from the newspaper briefly, thinking: “Oops, there goes another one.”

Some wanted to flee, to evacuate, to take precautions. The scientists of the Royal Azorean Seismological-Volcanic-Geodesic Institute warned that something big was going on. But others said: “Oh, these so-called experts are always changing their minds. Sometimes the volcano is dangerous, sometimes not.” The priests reassured them: “All we have to do is pray.” And the Conservative Party begged: “We can’t shut down the economy!”

On the morning of 27 September 1957, a volcano erupted. But, rather insidiously, not one of the known ones, but a new one. About 1 km west of Faial, in the sea. It began with a cloud of smoke. The water bubbled and steamed and boiled and hissed. And a new volcano pushed its way from the depths of the Atlantic into our world.

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And the earth continued to tremble. Fissures opened from below. From above, it rained ash, lava and rocks. It was like the end of the world. People were swallowed up. People were buried. People got scorched, burned, vaporized.

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And all of that on an island. Where nobody can escape.

Now, as you have been imagining all of this as realistically as possible, sobbing “Mamma mia!” all along, you will be thankful for my recommendation to mix yourself a strong drink and to sit down. Because the big shock is yet to come:

This hell on earth lasted until 24 October 1958. For thirteen months!

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In the end, the new volcano born by the ocean was so large that it connected with the island and enlarged it by 2.4 square kilometres. “Therefore, Sir, the lighthouse no longer stands on the coast, where it once did. As it logically should.” (You can see the lighthouse at the very bottom of the next photo.)

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The volcano has created new land. But land that is of no use to anyone. Nothing grows there, even 60 years later. You can’t climb the new volcano, because crevasses keep opening up or cliffs are breaking off. It will take a few million years for ash to turn into stone. And anyway: Who wants to walk around on a grave?

So, after having thanked the gentleman for the explanations, I prefer to go in the other direction. When you walk across the cinder field down to the water, it feels like being on the beach. Only black, not sand-coloured. It would be idyllic if the gable of a buried house did not suddenly rise from the warm ash.

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Now, with my eyes sharpened for the drama that took place under my feet, I see more and more evidence of the village of Comprido, which did not escape the forces of nature in time. Like Pompeii, only with a better view.

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Occasionally, branches or little trees have dug their way up, like belated cries for help from the dead. I tread carefully, so as not to wake anyone. Especially not Mr Volcano.

Links:

Hopefully, I get to survive the remaining three weeks on the island without a volcanic eruption. Maybe I should go to church and light a candle. Speaking of churches, I’m working on a story that requires a lot of research and long conversations in pubs. If you’re interested in the small chapels all over the Azores, maybe you want to collect some euros in your parish to support this blog? I assure you of my profoundest gratitude.

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Posted in Azores, Photography, Portugal, Travel | Tagged , | 8 Comments

Good Night!

It had just stopped raining and I stepped outside to soak up the fresh air, yet untainted by all the flights that are going to resume next month. The sky said thanks, smiling a double smile.

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The sun, I think, was happy too, retreating after an exhausting day.

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Links:

Posted in Azores, Photography, Portugal | Tagged , | 5 Comments

Romantic Idea and Prosaic Reality

Zur deutschen Fassung.


When I got the assignment in the Azores, I immediately started searching for a passage on a ship to reach the far-away island by more adventurous and romantic means than by plane.

I searched in vain.

But I didn’t book a return flight, hoping to meet enough ferrymen, fishermen and sailors during three months on Faial to be able to hitchhike back to the continent.

And then, there was still the possibility of sneaking on board a cargo ship as a stowaway.

The other islands of the Azores archipelago also seemed perfect for exploring them by boat. 7 hours to Terceira, 9 hours to Flores, you can rarely travel in such a decelerated and relaxed way.

But today, the first ride on a ferry goes to Pico, the near neighboring island. The crossing only takes 30 minutes.

To enjoy the best view, I enter the upper deck. It is a small ferry, with about ten rows of seats on each floor, most of them facing the direction of travel. Just like an airplane. Only with free seating. I place myself right next to the open door to enjoy the sun, wind and water.

Almost unnoticed, the ferry boat is released from the grip of the terminal. The powerful engines are pushing it through the harbor with ease, steering it gently towards the exit.

But as it leaves the two protective quay walls behind and heads out into the sea, the ship begins to rock. Or rather, it begins to seesaw, from front to back. That’s probably normal, as you leave the port and enter the open sea, I try to calm myself.

But the movements do not stop, they become stronger. Higher and higher the boat rises. Deeper and deeper it falls. As does my stomach, rising and falling. I am glad I haven’t eaten anything yet.

Why go out to sea when there are such monster waves? On the other hand, I try to calm down, the captain doesn’t want to die either. He probably checked the weather report before he yelled “Cast off!”

Fresh air is coming through the door. I am breathing deeply and consciously. More and more water splashes in my face, too. White foam dances on the waves. I can’t take any photos, because I need both arms to claw myself to the seat. There is no seat belt and if I don’t hold on tight, I would fall out of it. At least I’m sitting right next to the door, I am planning ahead, so I can jump out, should the boat capsize.

But then what? The waves are now higher than the boat. When we are at the bottom of the wave valley, I don’t see Pico upfront, but only masses of water. I could never swim against these waves. This is the Atlantic Ocean, not the Mediterranean or so. And the sea has endless power, endless energy, endless water, like a perpetual motion machine. It never gets tired. I, on the other hand, have hardly any strength left to hold onto the seat.

A sailor is warpedly waling through the corridor, because the boat is now also rolling from port to starboard and back. He closes the heavy iron door in front of my seat and blocks it with a wooden wedge so that it cannot be opened anymore. The escape route is blocked.

The up and down was bad, but the sideways rolling is a hundred times worse. The boat is tilting to starboard where I’m sitting, and I can look the killer whales in the eye. Then it tilts to port, and I’m hanging in the air like a vulture. Meanwhile the boat gains and loses about 10 meters in height. Everything at the same time, every movement contradicting each other, everything out of control.

I am not sure if we are still moving forward or just dancing on the spot like a ball being thrown into the air and caught again by Poseidon. By a Poseidon who is very angry today. Maybe his football team lost the relegation.

It’s supposed to take 30 minutes to get across the channel. I don’t even dare look at the watch. I try to think of something else, but only get to the point where I have to go back from Pico to Faial in a week. By boat!

But I cancel all further plans. The passage by ship to other Azores islands. Definitely the return trip to Portugal,which would last at least seven days. The idea of going from Odessa to Georgia across the Black Sea. The cruise to Saint Petersburg. The crossing of the English Channel. All canceled! I just want to get my feet on solid ground, as far away from this all-consuming maw of the sea.

And then, to my big relief, Madalena appears, the port of Pico. The ship is staggering past two dangerous rocks. But thanks to the rocks, I can at least see that we are moving forward. When we enter the harbor, there is already another ferry, run aground. So, it’s really as dangerous as it felt.

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Because there are readers who say “oh, Andreas always exaggerates”, I present you with two videos of ferries on the same route. But remember, these videos only show them leaving the harbor. Once on the high seas, the going gets really rough.

Th first thing I did was to book a return flight to Portugal.

Links:

  • The island of Pico was quite beautiful.
  • I made the return trip from another port, so it took a full 2 hours instead of 30 minutes. But this time, the sea was calmer. A little bit.
  • That reminds me that I finally have to write about my two Atlantic crossings. But that’s such a huge project, with three weeks at sea and stops at Madeira, Sint Maarten and Antigua, so I have to collect some support for this blog before I can devote a few weeks to that project. Thank you very much!
Posted in Azores, Portugal, Travel | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

Fan Mail: “Offensive Articles”

There are blogs where all the comments read “you are so right”, “totally agree!” and “you are beautiful”. Those are boring blogs.

I am not unhappy about compliments, especially about my writing, but if there were no dissenting voices, I would worry. Ideally, the exchange with you will broaden my knowledge, make me see different perspectives and new ideas, and rethink my positions.

So, when someone wrote that “degrading countries with offensive articles is not ethical”, it made me think for a while.

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However, on this point, I don’t think I need to change my mind, nor my writing.

First of all, countries don’t have feelings. So there are fewer ethical restrictions on writing about countries than about human beings.

But I don’t want to use this clever reply to get out of the debate easily. Because, although I would prefer if fewer people identified themselves with a randomly assigned country, we have to admit that when people speak about countries, they often (also) mean the people living there. This can be a fine line, but if someone says that country X is “a shithole country”, that’s on a different level than stating that country Y “doesn’t have proper mountains”.

When someone says I am degrading countries, I wonder what the alternative would be. Maybe to ennoble countries? Or to dignify them? Would that be ethical? Oddly enough, whenever someone writes something positive about a country, they hardly receive any pushback, even if it’s not true.

The truth is, as shocking as this sounds to people who get their news from Instagraph, that not everything is fine and happy and glamorous and just in this world. And when I write about this, the writing is not unethical, but the underlying injustice is. I could even argue that not writing about injustice would be unethical, at least more so than writing.

Next point: Are my articles offensive?

I have been trying to avoid making this about a specific country because it’s a general question, but you need to read some of my articles to determine whether they are offensive.

I din’t ask the gentleman which article disturbed him, but based on his country of origin, I have a suspicion that it was this one. Since he wrote me, I have actually published another article which happens to take place in his country. I recommend that you take the time to read them because they are insightful and funny, I think, and without doing so, you won’t be able to pass judgment on my level of offensiveness.

So, what did you think?

I, for one, am ready to admit that my humor can be offensive at times. I would think that this is alleviated by the fact that I am humorous about almost anything and anybody, including myself.

But, and I think this is the most important point, everything I wrote in these articles was observed by myself. Everything is true. (For the personality cult around Heydar Aliyev, you even have all the photos as proof.)

Another point in my defense: I did not go to Azerbaijan to write funny articles. I did not go to Azerbaijan with any mission. Heck, I would have been super happy if the taxi driver had not lied to me! I went to the park in Ganja because I like parks and because it was my birthday. I was hoping to meet interesting people and maybe someone playing a song for me, as happened on a previous birthday.

Now, someone could say: “Well, you had one negative experience. You can’t pass judgment on the whole country.” First of all, nobody ever says that to someone writing about a country based on one positive experience. That shows how phony that argument is. Second, I am not passing judgment, I am reporting. And that means that a lot is determined by coincidence. If I had gone to the same country a month later, maybe I would have had the best experience. Then I would have written about that. But I am sure the megalomaniac parks and statues will still be there on my next visit.

Triumph1

“I dare you to call this park megalomaniac! This is the greatest park in the world!”

Actually, speaking of that next visit, it probably won’t happen. Azerbaijan is not so keen on reporters. It is the country with most journalists in prison in Europe and Central Asia. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, censorship in Azerbaijan is stricter than in Iran or in China. Bloggers are regularly intimidated. Oh, that reminds me of something that happened in Ganja. Of the more than 60 countries where I have been, this was the only time that police stopped me in the middle of the city demanding to see the photos on my camera, insisting that I delete some, and then telling me to get lost. (Since then, this has happened once more. But the second time was in Montenegro where I sneaked into a Navy base, taking photos of warships. There, I really deserved it.)

IMG_2743

This was probably unethical.

Maybe it’s because of all that censorship that people aren’t used to read anything critical about their country? And Azerbaijan is also known to bribe its way to positive reports.

But returning to the question of ethics, I would want to doubt the notion that I am in any position to degrade a country. This is a small blog with no influence. Whatever I have written about a country has never put a dent into tourism or other shady revenues of that country. There are thousands of everything-is-super-nice-and-the-sun-is-shining bloggers (practicing their own form of censorship) to counter my little critical voice.

Also, as my articles usually make clear, they are very personal. I am not trying to present them as some objective view of the world. I would think that the manner and tone of my writing convey that.

Lastly, I feel that I did nothing unethical because I violated nobody’s trust. When I went to the park, nobody gave me a tour, of whom I later made fun. The taxi driver wasn’t even trying to be nice and, in a way, he got paid to be portrayed as a pirate. For me, the most serious ethical dilemma poses itself when I want to write about situations in which someone is confiding in me or helping me. I have a warning label on my blog, but people whom I randomly meet or who give me a lift in their car haven’t read that, of course. I am not sure I can ethically justify writing about them. Which means that I have to rely on artistic justification alone, which means that those stories are all standing on shaky ground. You better read them quickly, before they collapse!

But I really want to thank Abbas for his comment. Nothing worse can happen than to think of oneself as the best, believing that one is always right. I am thankful when someone makes me reflect my own thoughts and actions. And even more thankful if it leads to a change in opinion, because without that happening from time to time, I would feel intellectually frozen.

Links:

  • Fan mail from a jealous reader.
  • Fan mail from a Jesus freak.
  • As you can guess from my articles, I never receive any invitations or sponsorship. Therefore, all this work depends wholly on your support, for which I am very thankful!
Posted in Azerbaijan, Philosophy, Travel | Tagged | 1 Comment

Flight to Horta

Zur deutschen Fassung dieser Geschichte.


On the plane to the island of Faial, I notice that many people have brought thick books with them. An island seems to be a good place to read, and I wonder why people, if they like reading, don’t make equal time for it at home.

A young girl sitting next to me is reading Anne Frank’s diary. It is always the youth that gives me a little bit of hope.

Sitting in the row opposite is an old man reading a thick thriller through thick glasses. He looks like Norman Mailer himself. With a touch of Clint Eastwood. Definitely like someone who would have a novel in him.

I start reading “Moby Dick” and regret not having found a ship to the Azores.

But when writing about flights, readers don’t want descriptions of fellow passengers and their reading, they want me to look out the window. Well, there is not much to see. Plenty of water.

“Why don’t you take pictures?” the beginners then ask, because they don’t know that the drops drifting in the ocean are the same ones as in the bathtub at home. And if you try to take a photo of the islands, it gets blurred and scratched.

Pico from plane

(This is the view of Pico Island, Mount Pico hidden in the clouds and the town of Madalena. If you want to know something about the island, you must not only fly over it, but you have to explore it properly, on foot, for at least a week – or read my article.)

And then I already have to put my camera down, because the announcement comes on: “Ready for landing,” and the little plane swings into the harbor of Horta.

The harbor?

Yes, the harbor, which is also the airport here.

Because that is perhaps the most interesting thing about this flight: As many islands in the Azores are too small for airports, the planes have to land on water. The only exception is Lajes Field, an airport that the British Air Force built on the island of Terceira during World War II. The mere mentioning of that time makes the readers throw their hands up in despair and shout in unison: “Oh no, not another historical digression!”, which is a pity, since it would not be limited to the Second World War, but would finally offer the opportunity to speak about the Anglo-Portuguese alliance of 1373. Anyway, if you are interested, just press the button above your seat.

The plane slowly descends towards the water surface. Actually, a water landing is easier than a ground landing, because you can “roll out” forever or, if necessary, attempt the landing again without having to return to a designated spot. But the weather must be better, because waves in the water are even deadlier than winds across the runway.

Oh, there was a first touchdown.

But the plane is already back in the air.

And another touchdown.

The plane bounces back again, still flying.

I’m a little bit worried, but later, I will find out that this is exactly how it is supposed to be. The pilot keeps touching the water to slow the plane down. In the end, the plane should be just slow enough to lose the aerodynamic lift and to glide into the water. Once the speed has been reduced enough, this is hardly ever dangerous.

seaplane landing in Horta

And I think it worked! You notice that you have finally landed when the propellers get cranked up again and the plane describes a curve in the water to drive/swim towards the port.

Once there, I’m surprised how busy it is. With only 15.000 people living on the island, what are all the airplanes doing here?

seaplanes parked in Horta

“What are you all doing on Faial?”, I ask the passengers disembarking from another plane.

seaplane passengers

“Oh, we don’t know that ourselves. We only have an hour to stretch our legs and have a cup of coffee.” They are on a stopover from New York to Lisbon.

And suddenly, I understand the big rush. The location of the Azores in the middle of the Atlantic makes it a perfect, indeed the only, stopover place for transatlantic flights. Well, you could still fly via Greenland or Iceland, but if you end up going to or coming from southern Europe, that’s quite a detour. And who wants to buy a winter jacket for a short stopover?

The first landing of a plane in Horta coincided with the first transatlantic flight ever. You are probably thinking of Charles Lindbergh now, but no! He was the first to fly non-stop and alone across the Atlantic in 1927. But the first successful transatlantic crossing by airplane ever was accomplished in 1919 by a US Navy crew in the Curtiss NC-4.

curtiss_nc-4_four_engine_configuration-detail

In May 1919, Captain Albert Read landed in Horta Harbor with what, at least to modern eyes, looks like a rattletrap and gave the fishermen and whalers a good scare. But back then, flying was all about energy efficiency, not luxury and convenience. At that time, getting on a plane was still environmentally acceptable, even for tree-huggers!

Lindbergh, sticking to the rules of the competition, had missed the Azores on his non-stop flight. But he returned in 1933 to find the best port for stopovers on the transatlantic route. He picked Horta on Faial as the best port, and because at the time, Lindbergh had not yet disqualified himself as a Nazi, the major airlines believed him.

But then, it was the Nazis after all who opened the first regular air service from Europe to New York via Horta. If Lindbergh had a secret hand in this? Who knows. From 1936, Lufthansa flew with Dornier Do-18 flying boats. But these were still quite windy aircraft, only for airmail and, in typical complicated German engineering, they could land in water but not take off in water. Instead, Lufthansa had to provide a ship from which the mail plane was catapulted back into the air after the stopover.

This is more or less the technology that is still used on aircraft carriers today. I believe.

But from 1938 on, the big passenger planes of Pan Am came and went several times a week. I forgot to take pictures in the airplane, also because I would have found it rude in front of the other passengers. But here you can take a look into the inner life of a Boeing 314.

seaplane inside

I actually found it quite spacious and comfortable. Much better than Ryanair and similar airlines, in any case.

Only now does it occur to me that the girl reading Anne Frank was perhaps not motivated by an interest in the Holocaust, but merely wanted to prepare herself for the forthcoming quarantine.

Practical advice:

  • Because the Azores are striving for equal treatment of all nine Azores islands, there is a great offer: If you can’t find a suitable (i.e. cheap) flight from Portugal to the island of your choice, simply fly to another island and get the connecting flight for free. All you have to do is register here in due time (this applies to inbound and outbound flights).
  • The flights with the flying boats are for nostalgics, which is why you won’t find them on the internet. You have to go to a travel agency like we used to do in the good old times.

Links:

Posted in Azores, History, Portugal, Technology, Travel | Tagged , | 8 Comments

Film Review: “Minimalism”

Seeing guys with houses, cars and expensive phones talk about minimalism made me laugh.

And there’s the minimalist version of my review of “Minimalism: A Documentary about the Important Things” already.

Seriously, though, this is an important subject wasted on a bad film. A film which is basically an advert for selling books. (Which in itself is not very minimalist, because you could get the books from the library.)

The film was short on practical advice, and it was especially short on exploring the “why?” behind minimalism. You don’t get rid of stuff to get rid of stuff. It’s not a competition and it shouldn’t be a fad. You get rid of stuff because acquiring and keeping it costs you time (by selling it to an employer or directly to customers), and you have better things to do with your time. Hopefully.

Pause

In my case, the better things to do with my time are traveling, enjoying nature, reading, studying and writing. I realize that I am extremely lucky because almost all of these things don’t cost much. Nature is free. Books are free at the library. Writing requires merely a pen and paper.

“But how can you afford to travel so much?” people always ask, because traveling is something that a great many people are keen on. And, to their surprise, minimalism is the answer! I can travel so much because I don’t own a car, because I don’t own a house, because I never bought an Apple product in my life. (I explain the connection in this article.)

People sometimes reply: “Oh no, I couldn’t live like that! I need 20 pairs of shoes, the Apple Watch, and let me buy another dress that I will never wear. After that, I will travel.” And then they wonder why they can’t afford to travel for half of the year, every year. Well, the answer is sitting right there in their bedroom, when they look at 20 pairs of shoes, of which they can’t wear 19. Most of us have only two feet, and it ain’t the number of shoes that counts, but where we walk.

Traveling, at least the way I do it, being away for months, is also a great teacher for minimalism. Everything I need has to fit in a backpack. There is no point in accumulating a lot of stuff if I won’t be home for 10 months of the year. (Actually, I don’t really have a home of my own.) The more you move, the more you realize that stuff is a burden, not an asset.

Also, for a film about minimalism, the movie was terribly long and repetitive. I stopped halfway into it. It would have been more fun to watch if they had invited me. But I am too minimalist to be crazy about marketing myself. I am just happy to sit under a tree.

hobo

And that’s one problem with minimalism and adventurism and many other worthwhile concepts: You will rarely ever hear from those who practice them well. Because those people don’t care about being on YouTube or giving TEDx talks.

Links:

Posted in Economics, Films, USA | 4 Comments

Return to Normality

Zur deutschen Fassung dieses Artikels.


We can go into town again. The barrier tapes have been removed from the parks, as if the crime scene has been cleaned up. The doors of the shops are wide open. Some of them have a sign, suggesting that only one customer should be inside at any time. The way banks do it, for fear of robberies with hostage situations. The Post Office is particularly strict, to prevent some crazy from going philatelistic.

The streets, the sidewalks, everything is as full as it hasn’t been in a long time. Fuller than I remember it ever having been, to be honest. Maybe because some people aren’t back at work yet (teachers, flight attendants, students), squeezing into the city instead. Some people wear the facemask, some have it dangling pointlessly from one ear, others stuff it into the back pocket as soon as they leave the supermarket, making sure to show their disdain.

Cars have been allowed outside, too. Every single parking space is occupied. The streets are filled with smoke and screeching and honking and fender benders. And dogs, worst of all.

It all comes upon me like an avalanche. The noise, the moving parts everywhere, people even want to talk to me. I have to be careful again to not get run over. What happened with the primacy of human life, forgotten so soon?

Frankly, it’s too much for me. I am sweating, and not only because of the facemask. My heart is beating faster. You have to keep your eyes everywhere, and everywhere at the same time. I just want to go back home as soon as possible. This is so much stress compared with the previous months. The town has become too busy and bustling for me.

The town is Horta, with a population of about 6000.

Horta Gesamtansicht

Horta von oben

I can’t even imagine how I am supposed to survive this once I’ll be back on the continent.

Most likely, I am going to shoulder my backpack very soon and hike off into the Central European forests.

Links:

  • More reports from the increasingly stressful Azores.
Posted in Azores, Photography, Portugal, Travel | Tagged | 20 Comments