Bosnia, into Croatia and a new recruit (part one)

If there is such a thing as simplicity in life, I have yet to find it. I had lamented over how previous life was filled to bursting with work, emails, social commitments, an over-stretched fleet of interests and ambitious future plans.

“On this great journey we can live day to day, we can read books and write and develop new skills” we excitedly echoed to each other.

We packed a large bag of fact and fiction. We armed ourselves with pens, pencils paper and cameras to record our experiences. We moved and rested through Europe, developing a routine. Despite the efficiency we learned as we went, each clean white day became blotted out by tasks, jobs and unforeseen obstacles. Waking, packing, securing three meals, fixing, apprehending, experiencing, befriending and finding/making a new home; our allocated units of time were quickly spent. Any other spare time tended to be spent firefighting, be it fixing a mechanical fault, replacing stolen equipment or putting out the cooking fire. For the time being, our book bag remains largely untouched. Hopefully the large expanses of Africa will find space for our grand objectives.

It was getting dark as we passed through rural Serbia en route to the Bosnian border, memories of the warm hospitality and beautiful women of Belgrade still fresh in our minds. The radio blared out back-to-back 80s power ballads (as Serbian stations invariably do) giving us an edgy sense of purpose. Squat, functional houses lined the village streets. There were few people about. The border appeared around the bend as a bright, strip-lit gate, beaming out across the unremarkable lowland. Silhouettes of border police paced, stamping out the cold and awaiting the occasional vehicle. We in turn were stamped out of Serbia with a smile and a stare that we have become accustomed to. We drove the two kilometers of no-man’s-land to Bosnia, wondering with interest how the people who live on this stretch get their post.

There was tense atmosphere as our passports were examined. We were given an incomprehensible command from the (admittedly cordial) official. This eventually clarified into ‘green card’, an insurance document. Back in Britain Rich had been assured by our insurance company’s call centre, a lady who had the rushed air of somebody who just wanted to make a simple sale and get him off the phone, that green cards had been phased out and were not needed. This is not the case in former Yugoslavia, or indeed much of distant Europe.

When confronted with such a border problem, one has a few options: 1. Smile on whilst ruffling through papers and files, producing other unhelpful documents 2. Furrow your brows and ask the same questions again in different forms in the vain hope the answer will change with the phrasing 3. Stare blankly and don’t say anything. The hope is that eventually they’ll realise you are some kind of moron rather than an enemy of the state, get bored and let you through. Stuck as we were in no-man’s-land, unable to go forward or back, these were our only real options.

After a period of blank staring the policeman sighed and pointed to the police station where we could arrange a temporary document. All it cost was 40 euros.

“Ah. yes. Do you happen to take cards?” we hazarded. Obviously not.

“All of you are travelling without cash?” they asked, flabbergasted.

“Ummm, Yes?” we sheepishly explained

We had just blown all our Serbian currency at the last petrol station. We tried to explain this as we were passed up the hierarchy of border guards. We returned to the car and rummaged together some pounds, a few euros and even received a donation from a kindly businessman driving through. It wasn’t nearly enough. After about an hour, in a quiet office one of the disparing chiefs took our grubby notes and handed us the papers, looking the other way. We drove into Bosnia.

Sarajevo was still a long way off, hiding in the hills. After an hour the drab, straight streets of the eastern lowlands wound into wooded hills, the temperature dropped and the hours passed. “This would have been a great drive to do in the day” Rich noted as the hot diesel engine chewed its way up another mountainside. Sarajevo opened up beneath us all of a sudden. The valley was carpeted by a thousand orange glows, like a cooling lava flow. We engaged the rushing traffic, used a bad map to good effect and found a hostel in the centre.

A typically refined gentleman in Sarajevo, enjoying a coffee in the sun. Pigeons scatter the square and a war graveyard, one of many, lies beyond in the rising hills.

A well-dressed, refined old man and his kindly wife welcomed Guy and I in as the others fended off the enraged taxi drivers from the rank we had straddled. The place was an amazing three storey Austro-Hungarian town house, adorned with paintings and wood furniture. I ran my hands along the keys of a walnut, Viennese Grand piano. It was badly out of tune.

“Four years of winter’s freezing damp without fuel to heat the house. A lot of nice things were lost in the siege” the old man sighed.

He cheerfully changed the subject, showing me his old skis used in the Sarajevo Winter Olympics and some Edwardian tennis rackets.

In the light of day, the city’s harrowing recent history was revealed. For almost four years the city was cut off by the Bosnian Serbs. Relentlessly shelled, rocketed and stalked by snipers, its populous were trapped with sparse food and water, no electricity or fuel. Nearly 12,000 killed, 56,000 wounded and a city virtually leveled. Despite the rebuilding efforts many of the buildings, especially in the suburbs, remain in ruins or are scarred with bullet and shell holes. Amongst it all, life carries on: The Bosniaks and other residents of the city are cheerful, charismatic and warm. Shops ply their trade, mosques announce the call to prayer, mothers play with children, and old men sit out in the sun with coffee.

I was totally enchanted by the place. The cultural influences of Austro-Hungarian refinement mixed with Ottoman luxury and religion makes the Bosniaks totally unique. We spent hours in tea shops and coffee terraces talking with the locals. The war is still fresh in everyone’s memory, there is still a huge burden of displaced and damaged people but there are also new worries about Bosnia’s floundering economy. They talk about it all in slightly sing-song fatalistic tones, sipping delicious Turkish coffee.

We went out that night. Beers were swilled with exaggerated gestures of friendship all round. We went to a nightclub, which had once been a dance hall. The crowd was friendly and the music good. We noticed the curious tendency, upon starting-up conversation with a girl or group of girls, that a large man would soon be looming around nearby. It appeared they all had minders. When we had met half the nightclub and shown of the latest and best dance moves from the UK we were ready for a Kebab, something the people of Sarajevo have mastered.

During our third night the four of us wandered the empty sunday streets to clear our heads before bed. We stopped on  a street corner by one of the bridges. we watched the water and talked for a time. As we were heading of we read a plaque on the corner building. We had been standing on the spot where Archduke Franz Ferdinand had been assasinated almost a century ago: ‘The shot that echoed around the world’ and triggered the web of international alliences to activate, beggining the great war.

When our days in the city were done we drove out along the infamous ‘sniper alley’, past the airport made famous by war journalism in the 90s, and out through the southern suburbs. The tower blocks we pock marked with holes, some bricked up, some still with open wounds spreading across the plaster like splattered paint. There were many abandoned villages in the nearby countryside.

We wound south all day through the hills and mountain passes that funneled the wind to such a force as to almost bring our heavily laden land-ship to a stand still. We arrived at the famous Ottoman bridge of Mostar for lunch and pressed on into another pass.

The journey to Croatia was relatively unmemorable. The land became more arid. It was dark and suddenly the land plunged away to the sea. The thin strip of land that is southern Croatia is separated from Bosnia by a towering and acute wall of rock. It was this escarpment that we were now descending. We reached split and engaged the usual hostel-unpacking-posing-locking-food-beer sequence. It would be here that we would pick up our new recruit…

To be continued…

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Serb Your Enthusiasm

‘You’ll pretty much just need your flip flops and board shorts Guy’… This was the advice given to me from my brother, Sebastian, prior to joining the three intrepid doctors for the first several months of the trip through Europe and Turkey. For some reason these words have echoed in my mind, in between the shivers and teeth jitters, during some of the coldest journeys of our trip. Aside from some sub-temperature camping in German and Czech woodland, the two most notable occasions have been, firstly, the southward ascent from Graz, Austria, into snowy Slovenia and secondly the long trip from Ljubljana, Slovenia, via Croatia to Belgrade, Serbia.

The Land Rover, which at 20 years of age stands at only two years my junior, is undoubtedly a fine vehicle, one which leaves strong impressions – turning heads and leaving mouths agape in our wake nearly everywhere we drive. However, with the smooth comes the rough. One of the quirks includes the capriciously precarious doors, adorned with rust and a matrix of holes that provide ample breathing (influx of freezing air) and excellent water provision (streams of icy water flowing onto ill-prepared footwear). These features came into their most pronounced state during the coldest and wettest of the journeys.

In Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, we spent two nights. The trip into the city had allowed us to experience the shock of snow, we had taken turns in one of our seats, the back passenger seat rearward of the driver, which has been branded the ‘sarcophagus’. This punishing abomination is the clear short straw of the car. It is unable to be opened, at mercy to the elements and with about as much space as a hamster cage, the icy air and cramped conditions leave you with borderline hypothermia. This is not to mention the remaining shards of glass from the previous break ins that crop up from time to time to remind you of your misery. However, now that we have entered Turkey and reached the warmth of Mesopotamia, having basked in Greek sun for quite a while previously, these issues have been of little further concern.

In Ljubljana I had managed to send off some couchsurfing (www.couchsurfing .org) requests for Belgrade, the capital of Serbia and our next destination. Luckily enough for us, one of my couch requests was successful. Two very kind Serbian girls, Andrijana and Marija, had agreed to accept us for the night. This was a fairly mammoth request, especially for their parents, given that we were four British men whom they had never met, and that they had already hosted 17 people that month.

The author overlooking the Sava in Belgrade.

With a rendez-vous arranged in Belgrade for 8pm, we set off at 11am giving us what we saw as a wide-berth time allowance for unforeseen delays (which are largely considered as inevitable, the Google Maps estimate times by 2 usually does the trick). The long drive went into the evening with temperatures dropping to considerable lows. Subsequently, starting with the poor ‘sarcougphigated’ one (this trip has coined considerable new terminology and grammar), we all one by one started to adorn ourselves with hats, blankets and anything with any vague heat retaining ability. As we bumbled along the headlights ominously started to flicker… out they went. This led to a long delay as we endeavoured to fix the electronics at a run-down mountain petrol station, after much effort and the clock worryingly ticking over, Rich had secured some lights, but with the full beam only. We got back on the road met with angry flashes from every vehicle we passed.

Crossing the Croatian border into Serbia was an on-edge affair to say the least, with no indicators and only full beam, wrapped up in strange hats (I, sporting a bright fluorescent beanie we had acquired, and Dan a fury Russian hat), covered in blankets, we somehow managed some nervous smiles and murmured some poorly formed serbo-croatian hellos to the surly border guards. We successfully entered Serbia with great relief.

Considerably behind schedule, we met the lovely Marija and Andrijana, who had been waiting for us at the central station in Belgrade. We proceeded to their house, which was in neighbourhood called Kumotaz, a 20 min bus ride out of the centre. On arrival their mother, who supplied us with some well-needed nourishment, welcomed us. It was at this point that we were informed that the father of the house was in the automotive repair profession – our hearts jumped and eyes widened, we were all thinking the same. What a stroke of luck.

We stayed there for the longest we had stayed anywhere up until that point. This had been due to us usually getting itchy feet after staying somewhere for a couple of days, because of time constraints and accounting for car problems. The longer stay here allowed us to gain a deeper feeling for the place –at the home, the neighbourhood and into the city.

The hospitality in the household was superb. Serbian culture dictates that the chores of the household, such as helping in the kitchen, are no place for a man, and neither are such activities suitable for a guest. Unfortunately, the double whammy of our being both male and guest was not conducive to the manner in which we lived up to our stereotypes as bumbling English gents. Our persistent attempts to help out were met with fierce reprisals and subsequent cowering retreats back to a sedentary state, this cyclical affair occurred frequently, to the detriment of both parties, until we finally got the point. A similar issue occurred with portions and meals, with a typically British attitude we found it hard to say firmly that we had had enough; this led to back-to-back hefty and delicious meals, most often rendering us both satisfied and incapacitated.

Overall, Belgrade left us with lasting impressions. The city itself was both energetic and stunning – walking up to the Belgrade Fortress and the Kalemegdan Park which overlook both the city and the conflation of the Danube and the Sava rivers, at sunset, and experiencing one of our bests nights out of the trip, at the nightclub ‘Plastic’ – which looks dilapidated and slightly war-torn on the outside but has an impressive interior and world-leading sound system inside – were just some of the highlights. Having the delightful Bogunovic family home as our base enhanced these experiences ten-fold and gave us an insight to Serbian life.

We set off from the family home to hugs, kisses and fond farewells, into the night and onward to another Serbian city, Novi Sad, in high spirits and with working indicators and headlights, a mind-blowing novelty that meant we no longer had to lean out the window and wave vigorously whenever we needed to turn anywhere.

Novi Sad took us somewhat by surprise. Arriving quite late, tired and hungry, at around 11:30pm, we were greeted with Saturday’s thumping bars and a slightly wild-west overflowing nightlife on all visible areas of the streets. We parked up after some complex navigation and a surly looking stocky man with a shaved head and a black trench coat immediately accosted us. He assured us protection for our vehicle if he were paid sufficiently, we were unsure as to whether this was a threat or a guarantee. With only two hostels in our guidebook (which had clearly been written only for summer visitors), we parked up with the surly man ominously lingering around our vehicle getting worryingly frustrated with us. Dan and I set off to find the evasive/non-existent hostels, leaving Bass and Rich to deal with the Serbian mafia. After having little success with one of the elusive addresses, which led us down endless back alley drinking holes, up 6 flights of stairs, and into the home of a bewildered family, we eventually found the second one, ‘Downtown’.

Downtown was without a doubt the strangest hostel I have ever been, run by the comic duo of ‘The Manger’ and his brother. Although at first it is hard to gage, this interactive pair are indeed very friendly, if you’ve come to hostel for some peace and quiet, however, you will be greatly disappointed. With our now well-practiced division of labour, Rich and Dan set off to park the car securely, with the break-ins of Prague and Bratislava etched into our minds, whilst Bass and I started cooking. The long-haired Manager, a forty-something ex-serviceman-turned-hippy, is present 24/7 except when he naps leaving his brother, a bald chap who refers to The Manager in nearly every sentence he utters, takes over. This meant he was present in the kitchen/foyer/reception/Manager’s bedroom area during the cooking of our Thai curry. ‘Eeeh! Jamie Oliver’ he smirked at us as he put his arm on my shoulder and started to take charge of the cooking, I glanced at Bass uneasily as he proceeded to pour a cup of water in what we were trying to lightly fry. Bass had a look of despair. ‘I’m not your mother eh, in the army I cooked for 4000 people’ The Manager reiterated as he continued to take charge, assuming that he was saving our meal – neither of us dare intervene.

I realised Bass, who is extremely averse to having people intervene with his cooking, had reached breaking point when, after the Manager had briefly subsided, I commented that at least the flavour would be OK, it was just the texture we had wanted that would be compromised. ‘NO Guy, the flavour is exactly what is ruined, forget the bloody texture. We might just get some nutrients, maybe, out of this’ he snapped.

Fortunately the meal turned out to be delicious, much beer was drank and we abruptly realised it was now 1am, despite the necessity to wake up early we decided we had to utilise the thriving party vibe of the city and went out to ‘The London Underground’ bar/club, somewhere it felt quite strange asking for directions to, and a few other venues.

The next day we went to see the Novi Sad Castle, location of the famous Exit festival, and then set off for Sarajevo, Bosnia.

Guy Wallace

Venetian bowls

I was astounded on first visiting the little boy’s room in Austria to find a toilet basin that appeared to have been installed backwards. Most Europeans are accustomed to a watery sink hole at the rear with a gentle, ergonomic upwards slope towards the rim at the front. However this new and alien specimen has its pool hard at the front, with a horizontal platform behind. I was assured by our Austrian guests that this is the norm here.

I take several issues with this new discovery. Firstly, as a chap, the angle of attack for minor visits to the loo is so acute as to be too risky, given the repercussions of stream glancing rim. Secondly, aforesaid horizontal plateau appears to defeat one of the best functions of a modern toilet by allowing any product of a major visit to the WC to proudly sit aloft in room air, rather than being enveloped by odour-restrictive water. Thirdly, any major business conducted will result in inevitable requirement for brushing, which can lead to awkward situations if no such brush is available. Finally, closer proximity of business to the wiping hand only increases the risk of a catastrophic meeting of the two. Unthinkable.

One thing the Austrians do well is Autumn!

Austria: hospitality, sarcasm and the dangers of group psychology

We left Bratislava across the Danube. I was excited to cross this great river that has always formed one of history’s most significant borders. Looking across the misty banks, I could picture anxious  roman legionnaires at the limits of civilisation, surveying the dark, endless unknown  from their walls. As we crossed over the space-age soviet bridge, I imagined we were spies being traded by the superpowers  like chess pieces, across the iron curtain.

Our impressions were immediately set on a positive course as we stopped for coffee in a fortified town where a kind bystander furnished us with a landrover part dealer’s details . As we drove the surprisingly short hour to Vienna the sun came out, the warm air flooded through our recently smashed window and we were soon distracted by a picturesque riverbank. After an impromptu picnic, we basked, threw a ball around and took photos before realising we were now drastically late to meet our friends in Vienna.

This is a good opportunity to  write about our travelling ‘fiascos’ and how they occur.  Dan, Rich, my brother Guy and I would like to think of ourselves as functioning, relatively efficient adults, capable of solving problems and making autonomous decisions. We have all individually travelled in Europe and Africa before. However, as a group, we repeatedly seemed to run late, drive off with equipment unattached, forget key times or overlook important requirements for borders. Admittedly, the speed we were travelling, the complicated transfer of our equipment from car to tent to hostel as well as the huge amount we tried to fit into each day left us exposed to mistakes. However, every mistake seemed to follow a similar pattern. Analysis of each fiasco revealed that each group member had  assumed that someone else was on top of it. Often we had discussed the emerging problem beforehand but had not quite reached the point of preventative action. Furthermore the group had a tendency to exaggerate the prevailing mood. For example, when the mood was jovial everyone would read from the other that there was nothing to worry about, even as the car was towed, we became lost etc.
I can candidly criticise in the past tense because I feel there is a story in how we have become a functioning team, fit (hopefully) for Africa. From Bratislavan break ins to being stranded on the Serbian/Bosnian border without any currency, Europe has been a much needed teacher.

The four of us are all Generals. We are quick to take charge and delegate rolls. However none of us mind being absolved from decision making and simply given orders. The group member with the most vision or energy at the time tends to become team leader. We realised that one person with a set task such as shopping, works far more effectively then the four of us standing around debating the choice of cheese or passionately arguing the ingredients of a carbonara. We developed a dynamic whereby each person volunteers or is quickly assigned a role or responsibility. Arrival and departure have become particularly slick. The car pulls into a new destination and almost without a single word one person will stride off to negotiate a hostel (or pitch the tent) one person will climb onto the roof, one person will unload the inside luggage and then one person  will cook supper whilst the others securely park and lock the car. The golden rule being that if you mention an idea or spot a developing problem it is your responsibility to act on it until you delegate it to a specific person.

Friends we have met have been surprised by the blunt, businesslike way we behave toward each other when on the move. There is indeed a military feel to our economy of words and lack of pleasantries. We talk in a staccato series of orders, ‘affirmatives’ or ‘negatives’. In actuality there have been very few arguments and the level of trust runs high. The famous cry of ‘eyes’ when pulling into the outside lane, for example, confers responsibility to check for overtaking cars to the navigator.

We had been put in contact with Tanja, a medical student, via a friend from Cornwall. She kindly offered to put us up in her room in the centre of Vienna where she lived with three other students. We arrived in a blur of frantic activity. I can only imagine the first impression we made. Our vast mass of luggage was hauled out of our insecure vehicle into Tanja’s room. We then divided into cooks and mechanics. Guy and Dan somehow, through continuous bickering and infighting produced a masterpiece in the kitchen, whilst Rich and I splayed our tools out across the pavement, donned head torches and busied ourselves creating a new Perspex window. Unfortunately Tanja had to leave for the weekend but left us in the excellent company of her housemates Ruth and Shiva (? Spelling). I can only imagine what they thought about our sudden invasion but they certainly did a good job as hosts. Soon the beer and wine were flowing and we were well prepared for the rigors of a Viennese night out.

The Viennese  were  friendly, laid-back and witty. Our British tendencies for ironic insincerity, self-deprecation and plummy wordplay were all matched. Their English was embarrassingly good compared to our rough collection of broken languages.

We stayed for three brilliant days, the second being a large national holiday. Vienna is an impressive sprawl of grand baroque and neo-classicist buildings. Marble columns rise up and deities gaze down on every street. Palaces and universities dominate orderly squares. This imperial city  was fittingly adorned by the large scale military parades that were taking place.

The addition of four chaps and a car full of luggage was clearly demanding on the house, especially the plumbing. Despite our best amateur plumbing efforts, first the kitchen sink,  then the bathroom and finally the shower became blocked (this is probably due to a central fault rather then any misuse of the facilities). Matters reached a head one morning as Dan was showering, plunger in hand, in order to force the water down a reluctant plug hole. Guy was brushing his teeth the other side of the curtain when the washing machine began to empty. This regurgitated water up into the bathroom sink which began to brim. Guy grabbed a small paper cup, sounded the alarm and began to bail. Poor Ruth, who came to investigated was greeted by the sight of my brother frantically sloshing dirty water into the shower, all over a desperately plunging and naked Dan. A flood was narrowly avoided.

The following night, Shiva took us to a party to which he himself had a tenuous invitation. We were early to arrive and were greeted at the door by the host. After we explained that we weren’t the band and that we were actually temporary lodgers of a friend of a friend, we were asked to take our shoes off, add our beers to the communal stash and come in. It was an intimate party and we were quite conspicuous and awkward. However, we soon got to know some of the partygoers. We met Natascha, a curator from the Viennese MuseumsQuarter. Despite the late night, she kindly promised to show us around the following day before we set off. We were only slightly late.

We had our own expert guided tour of the modern art exhibitions and installations, meeting some of the artists themselves. The museum offers the opportunity for international artists to live for free within the complex for up to three months whilst they work on a project. For more than a moment I considered taking up a post and living the exciting life of an artist in Vienna. As I currently have relatively few ideas for a large scale modern art project that the world is ready for, I decided to continue on our journey.
The weather was changing for the worse. We planned to head for the city of Graz that evening. Ruth worked hard phoning around the people she knew in order to find us a place to stay. We we’re to be the guests of Melissa and Karin, two sisters studying at the university. Our tour of Vienna’s art had made us a little late. We drove on to Graz in the dark being battered by a tremendous storm. Water flooded into out leaky vehicle as we shivered onward. Our electrics continued to misbehave with the the indicators failing and the headlights having sporadic tantrums. Having studied the wiring diagrams and checked throughout for short circuits it appeared there was no easy explanation for the problems and that they were either multi-factorial or due to a malevolent evil spirit that now possessed our vehicle. Having the car exorcised remains on the to do list.

Our hosts had patiently waited up for us to cook for them. We arrived cold and damp to a welcome of warmth and hospitality. After a hearty meal, we were given the option of a nearby house party. It was Saturday night and despite the lingering fatigue Vienna had induced, we headed out. The party was friendly, buzzing and crowded. At one point there was a power cut and to fill the silence we all began to sing the shanty, ‘South Australia’. This seemed to go down well apart from the fact that everyone now thought we were from Australia and had decided to sing some kind of alternative national anthem.

The following day was crisp and autumnal as we walked up to a viewpoint to gaze over the beautiful, small city and the mountains behind. It began to snow.
After a goulash, we packed, said a fond goodbye to our hostesses and departed. Ahead of us across the mountains and the oncoming blizzard awaited Slovenia.

Czechsas Chainsaw Massacre (Dan’s Adjective-Saturated Masterpiece)

Well what is there to say about Prague? I suppose most of what went on in Prague must inevitably stay in Prague. There was our first burglary, brilliant Belgians, pedunk-a-dunk, free beer and two midgets in a cage. The rest is unutterable.

Weary, bleary eyed and slightly sheepish we left the capital of Czech and struck out towards Bratislava in Slovakia. We made it deep into sparsely inhabited Czech countryside before the sky began to darken forcing us to search for a camp. Among the indistinct pixels of our SatNav we noted a big blue splodge nearby and set a bearing for it. As the roads narrowed and tarmac gave way to root and mud we found our small car symbol within touching distance of the blue splodge but could see nothing resembling water and our way was blocked by padlocked barriers, fire pits and recently hewn trees. It was apparent that this area was actively being logged and strictly “verboten”. With the sniff of adventure in our noses we cut off the track into the woodland and with some careful driving we managed to pick a path through the tree stumps and thicket down to the edge of our target.

Brushing aside some low foliage we at last burst out onto a spellbinding scene. The lake we had found stretched out before us silver and endless in the mist. The cold sun shone off its surface and rose in a polished haze to veil the distant highlands. We made camp quickly and furnished our roof platform with chairs and table.

From our lofty perch, Czech beer in hand, we sat to soak up the dying light. Then in the subsequent gloom we cooked and ate by the light of our fire. Fed in ambitious style with an excellent lentil curry masterminded by Bass we decided to scout the area to see if the tiny town we had driven through held a pub. We bundled into the landie, the sleeping platform was erected in the back forcing Bass and I to travel into town like a couple of stiffs in the back of a jolly red hearse. After a little maneuvering out of the woods we soon found just the place. Heads turned as we entered. The sleepy spot clearly had not entertained tourists for some time.

Despite its being Wednesday night the pub was buzzing with conversation, grand gesticulation and bawdy laughter. I made my way to the bar. I ordered four beers from the barmaid, a thick set, weathered woman with the surly Slavic affect we had come to expect from the Czech service industry.  All French and German words useless here, I did so using the traditional method of jabbing one finger at the tap whilst holding up and waving four more fingers from my other hand. This appeared to work.

 I waited for my drinks but was waved away with an irritable gesture. Apparently our barmaid prefers to bring our beers to the table. This she did by deftly dancing her way through a gauntlet of ribald shouts and hearty slaps that shook her stalwart behind. She responded to her friendly hazing with smiles, winks and wiggles. Next time I order a round in Czech I must remember to accompany it with a firm clout across the rear, as this local custom seemed to be received far better than my attempted politeness.

Around us was a range of professions; mechanic, postman, farmer, all in their uniforms, straight from work. The farmer, a boxy man with hands of wood, took to investigating our presence in his pub. At least I imagine that is what he was doing as the conversation consisted simply of a smiling patter back and forth of Czech and English statements equally mysterious to one party as to the other. Despite the cheapest beer of the trip so far we soon ran out of Czech crowns and headed back to our glass lake for sleep.

At 8 the following morning we were awoken all at once by the distant sound of diesel engines. All four of us leapt from our sleeping bags and stood in silence trying to determine from which direction the sound came. Rich quickly noted, “it is getting louder, they are coming towards us”. We paused a moment longer; he was right. We set about frantically packing up the camp, table chairs, tools, stove.  Half finishing jobs and changing to another, we weren’t going to make it, the rattling of engines was upon us, less than 30 yards away and it stopped. Silence followed. We too stopped, Czech voices barked from the other side of the thicket and the groan of engines was replaced with the whir and buzz of chainsaws. We quietly but quickly put out the fire and packed the remains of our camp then sat in the car to plan our escape. It would be necessary to drive out past the lumberjacks. These were big Czech men with chainsaws and we were trespassers. We had to plan our escape to the finest detail to avoid death or mortal injury at the hands of these crazed woodsmen.

We waited through several pauses in the whine of blade on bark before starting our engine and making a frenzied break for it. We crashed though the thicket, bumping and rolling over the stumps and bracken. The Czechs shouted furiously as we passed and we yelled incoherently back at them. We skidded back onto the dirt track and made off as fast as the road would allow. We breathed a sigh of relief as we hit the first stretch of tarmac road and sped towards the Slovakian border, the whirr of steel still ringing in our ears.

Daniel Nuth

Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany

“It was the best of times, it was the würst of times” Daniel Nuth

That day we arrived in the city of Brugge in time for lunch and a wander around. The weather was melancholy, the indicators still didn’t work and the wobble we had noticed since replacing our transfer box was worryingly present.  On the plus side, the architecture was mind-blowing. We pushed on to Brussels and checked into a nice warm hostel to raise morale.

Brussels is a fun and laid-back city. I am continually amazed at how late people go out on the continent, and stay up all night. The locals only start heading out at midnight and everywhere seems open until dawn. What seemed like a reasonable check out time the evening before arrived seemed draconian when it arrived. Nevertheless we drove on to the city of Maastricht.   Here we were to experience the splendid hospitality of an old travelling friend of Rich’s.
Andrea and her boyfriend put us up in their living room. The four of us took up a huge amount space. Like a napoleonic army, we decamped over their living room with luggage, damp towels, tools and bedding. Fortunately, the house was warm and there was no need to make  a fire. We spent the evening and following day in  this  charming city with good food and company. With spirits high and the weather clearing we decided to camp in the Eiffel national park in Germany, famous for its sweeping wooded hills and unexploded minefields. It seemed like the perfect place to disappear.
Car preparations had taken on the feel akin to a ship in port, bound for the new world. Songs were sung as men climbed up onto the frame, bedding was flung from the balcony and boxes and bags were ratcheted down. We left our maastricht camp more or less as we found it save for a pair of boxer shorts left in the bathroom.
We drove all day. The sky was beginning to bruise and the temperature drop as we drove up into dense wooded hills. We chose an arbitrary small road and then a track. We drove a long way down this logging track until we arrived at what can only be described as a large stone watchtower. A quick scout around revealed there was nobody around save for two walkers that we spied through binoculars a long way down a track and a lot of deer. We didn’t deviate too far into the thick woodland. This was largely because of the large tracts of unmarked WWII minefields, most of which were the sinister glass mines: Impossible to detect and very effective at wounding unsuspecting walkers.
We made camp. Despite the damp, a fire was soon roaring and we made a mean spaghetti bolognaise and dined around the table with wine. The illuminated pine trees closed in on us and the stars came out directly above. We sat around the fire with some ale and stories before retiring to bed. Two people in the sleeping platform of the car and two in the tent.
We had inadvertently chosen the best time of year for camping in the vast tracts of forest which cover southern Germany. We camped the following two nights in the forests of Bavaria. Autumn was in full swing and the whole country swept by under a canopy of auburns, golds and greens . The area of Germany we transected seemed fabulously preserved. Every town we stopped for supplies had a gingerbread arrangement of eaved houses, clocks and painted gothic churches. The clean streets and friendly people were jealously contrasted with our own dowdy isle. We refrained from using the word ‘utopia’ as this word has inexplicably fallen out of fashion.
There was a sleepy feel to the towns. One particular night, well fed and beered, four figures emerged from the forest onto an alarmingly suburban street. They had merrily strode down from the camp, head torches shining and smelling of wood smoke. They were confident that to find the fun all they had to do was follow the sound of the umpa band. However not a light was on in any house and the only bar was very much closed. The four crept back along their pre-marked path to the hidden camp without beer, song or fräulein.
A further problem had developed. Not only were we without indicators but now our headlights did not work. This limited us to only driving during  the shortening daylight hours. We made camp in a forest and began to try and fix our car. In our mossy garage we fixed a door, replaced the oil and changed the oil filter, however we dramatically exacerbated the electrical fault. We suspected that one of the relays was faulty and we set about replacing it. Unfortunately we had acquired the incorrect relay. This sent a huge charge down through the headlight circuit. There was a hissing sound and the car filled with acrid smoke. Dan managed to dive in and tear the relay out but not before the earth wire had fried itself.
Disheartened and with no lights of any description we drove to the stunning cathedral city of Limburg. It was here, whilst looking for parts  in an industrial estate car park, that we were to meet a guardian angel. This particular manifestation of a guardian angel had a shaved head, pierced ears and long plaited beard. His name was Eric and he was a landrover expert. Eric lead us in his own landrover to his house in a nearby village. After showing us around his farm house and giving us beer he helped us fix the problem. Not only did we drive off with functioning headlights, he also gave us a whole crate of Bavarian cider in return for a bottle of Betty Stoggs.
The following day we drove the ‘romantic road’ to Munich. The day was sunny as we engaged in an ambitious, efficient 400km of back to back site seeing. Not a single site was left unseen, not a single view Un-photographed and not a single box on our checklist un-ticked as we drove from one breathtaking town to the next. Würzberg, the extravagant seat of the prince-bishops and the fortified town of Rottenbach were particularly impressive.
We were meeting a friend for a drink in Munich so we had to push on.  We arrived in Munich late from traffic, wrong turns on the autobahn   and some less efficient seeing of sites than I had earlier lead you to believe. We did a rapid turn around before heading out. We met Feli an hour late at Robinson’s bar. It became quickly apparent that our lateness didn’t matter. Everyone in the crowded bar knew each other and the atmosphere was excellent. It was like a house party. Curiously no money ever seemed to be exchanged for the drinks flying across the bar.
That night during the revelry I managed to use ‘eurowallet’. Eurowallet is our collective and only source of money. This hard line communist system quickly developed upon leaving England partly because we opened a joint account with good exchange rates and partly because we all seem need feeding, resting and watering at similar times. Eurowallet has removed all idevidual decisions, as to remain equal and fair, the whole group must share your desires. For example : if one wants a coffee, they must say,
“Do we want coffee?”
If a positive answer is gained the next question  is,
“Who has Eurowallet?”
Before we all shuffle of to have team coffee, beer, food etc. It is still working well, to the point that we all had a clothes budget to spend in Munich.
The following day was hot and clear. We checked out late again. As we loafed around the city, we began to realise that perhaps Robinson’s bar wasn’t so unique. Everyone appeared healthy, well dressed, cheerful and friendly as if we were visiting a small town which rarely received outsiders.
As we prepared for departure to Prague, basking in the afternoon sun, we were approached by a film crew who made a short documentary about us. We spent a bleary-eyed hour or so posing over African maps, changing unnecessary wheels and fielding questions before we left, wanting to stay longer in this wonderful place.