Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Five Unexpected Walks in Italy, Germany, Slovakia and more

Ortigia, Siracusa, Sicily, Italy

Charles Darwin famously walked around his garden in order to think more intensely. With his body occupied in routine activity - the familiar garden path providing no distractions - he could devote himself entirely to his work. Perhaps this was typical Victorian dualism: with the body's coarseness occupied the mind is free to labour. But I think in many ways Darwin's extreme purposefulness is quite atypical. I suspect most people walk precisely in order not to think. Walking is at once a means of access to real novelty and at the same time a means of mental escape - both in their way a type of distraction. Walking lends the mental urge for distraction a physical excuse. The fastidious German philosopher Immanuel Kant built a short walk into his daily routine, a route he followed everyday of his adult life. Kant was a stickler for routine, reason and order, yet there is no doubt that his walks were a means to relax. Walking is generally a reason not to do any mental work, a way to shut mental things out and let everything else in.

"Only walking manages to free us from our illusions about the essential," writes the French philosopher Frederic Gors. When we choose to walk we grab something small from the world. Unlike the thoroughly utilitarian Darwin, when we walk we grab a small piece of time and make it useless. I think this is an exceptional thing. All the more so when you don't have to walk or you have no definite, cast-iron purpose for walking. So many good walks start with "Why don't we...?"

Culled from old notebooks, these are mostly walks that filled up some spare time. They are little, revelatory distractions.

Outer New Town, Dresden, Germany

Why is Germany so jolly? From the Black Forest to Berlin; from Bavaria to Saxony - walk into any shop and the same trilled "Hallo!" greets you from behind the tills. The joy of Dresden's gentrified, shop-strewn Outer New Town is the ample opportunity it provides for so many greetings. After arriving at our hotel we spend a rain-splattered February afternoon dipping in and out of its "craft-shops" and "eco-cafes" - all to a conspicuously jolly chorus.

Dresden's origins are humbler than those of some German cities: for a long time it was a backwater in the eastern marches of the Holy Roman Empire. Only from the sixteenth century does it garner familiar if delayed accolades of cultural flourishing under an obligatory "wise king", namely Frederick Augustus I the Strong. Unfortunately Augustus III the Fat, one of his successors, would be responsible for frittering away the territory not only of Saxony but of much of Poland too. Simon Winder, author of Germania, says that the catastrophes of Augustus III the Fat might be a better metaphor for Germany's twentieth century experience than the more professional and militaristic Frederick the Great. That would suggest, however, that the 25,000 civilians who died in the Allies' firebombing of Dresden in 1945 had only their avarice - and their metaphorical portliness - to blame.

"It looked a lot like Dayton, Ohio, more open spaces than Dayton has. There must be tons of human bone meal in the ground," Kurt Vonnegut, who was there in the firebombing, speculated on a return visit. This begs the question again: Why are Germans - Saxoners above all - so jolly? Is it a defence mechanism or has the Wirtschaftswunder worked its amnesiac magic so perfectly? Whatever the reason we silently congratulate each of them as we pop in and out of boutiques and funky Wurst-selling cafes. In the Outer New Town you escape some of the "fragile crispness" (in Winder's words) - the delicate, awe-inspiring beauty - of the reconstructed Old Town, which lies to our south across the Elbe. No wonder the city's alternative cultural life has migrated to this cosy, forgetful quarter, hidden from the gaze of the startling skyline just over the river: here both the amnesia and the Wirtschaft are at their liveliest.

Island of Ortigia, Siracusa, Sicily

Once a Greek city-state to rival Athens, Ortigia juts out into a wild Mediterranean sea. With its  walls making a mighty defensive effort against both storms and tides alike, this marooned button of land envelops visitors in a cosy, classically adorned refuge.

It is too late to go home and too early to go for drinks. So we walk along the sea walls as spectators to the blind fury of the waves. Watching them roar inexhaustibly in the dark is like hearing the wind howl past an upstairs window while you are safe inside. You have an irresistible feeling of nature tamed - until, that is, you get splashed. Then you retreat to some bar and smoke Gauloises and listen to the fine drumming of the rain on the window-sill.

Marjan Hill, Split, Croatia

We arrive in Split in the early morning on a ferry from the island of Korcula. On a claustrophobically hot day we walk up the side of a huge, woody hill - a great, dry rump of kindling strewn all over with "No Fire" warnings - to the city's west. This is the Marjan of Split, scooped like a sand castle out of the Adriatic, a proud, beaten chest of a peninsula towering above the city.

The Marjan is a symbol of Split resistance to fascism and of its patriotic identity. In the War partisans made its name their chorus, the star player in an anti-fascist anthem with cameos from Tito and even Joe Stalin himself. "Zivila sloboda, Hrvatskog naroda!" they sang to their fascist occupiers: "Long live the Croatian nation!" It is a point of particular pride, it seems, that the Roman emperor Diocletian built his palace in Split - though its labyrinth of alleys has been home to a gloriously ramshackle pile of markets and dwellings as long as anyone can remember. The hill remains relatively uncluttered, however; surprising in a city so choked with life it seems to spill into the sea.

Halfway up a small chapel as dry and sun-baked as the hill itself sits in a hollow, a half-decipherable dedication in Croat to one side and a baby pine spreading its thin limbs over it for meagre shade. Inside its parched old stone is coloured by a lone daub of kitsch: 1980s Jesus - the god of rock himself, surfing a lightning-bolt - hangs cheaply framed a little too high for inspecting eyes or fingers. The scraped-bare altar looks ready for a sacrifice.

My flip-flops, which were cheap and have been worn all week, feel like they're melting in the sun. My feet are caked in the hill's dust. Hardly anyone has made it up the Marjan today. Nobody - not even the guard - is in the zoo. One enraged chimp bears his teeth at us from his tiny cell. A bear lolls sadly from her pit. The pines ripple with heat. The hill's neglect may be benign but that of the animals is not. Up here - the zenith of Croat patriotism - are some angry, abandoned animals. Below tickets are being frantically sold for the next ferry.

Zdiar Village, Tatra Mountains, Slovakia

The day after accidentally climbing the highest mountain in the Tatras we decide to take it easy. It's May but it's cold and there is snow predicted for the weekend. We visit some local caves and have lunch but find we still have a few hours of light left in the evening. When we get back to Zdiar we decide to walk out of the village and through some woods around the feet of the nearby Belianske Tatry mountains.

The path follows a small, icy stream out of town and through the thin edge of a spruce wood. Half-built bridges are placed at intervals, bark-stripped log piles expectant at their sides. Squat hills roll up suddenly and fall away again. The stream meanders occasionally around them but mostly just drives straight down a long, wide clearing. Finally, as the hills funnel us into a narrow valley, we cross the stream and clamber up a stony path, half-sunk into the hillside. Tree stumps from the storm of 2007 - in which three million cubic metres of forest were wrenched up - lie everywhere, their wrecked trunks still scattered around them.

Beyond these stubbly woods we arrive at a remarkably smooth intersection of grassy slopes, a hut at the very deepest point with wires feeding out of it and back up the hills. Here and there a slumping metal tower of pulleys and wheels meets these wires, ready to send them back down. We are at an abandoned ski resort tucked into the lower slopes of the mountains. We make for the highest point, where a faux-Alpine lodge is lit up in the dusk, Mambo No.5 playing over the loudspeakers to nobody in particular. We look around for someone to sell us something but there's no one. And so we cross the road and begin the descent back into Zdiar, which snakes in a single line of hotels and penzions back to the south.

Vinohrady, Prague, Czech Republic

A studiously well-mannered neighbourhood, Vinohrady feels a lot like some scenery leftover from a Chekhov play: all sleepy bourgeois charm underlain by unspoken anxiety. You wouldn't know how near the centre of Prague you are as you flit between its tree-lined rows of apartment buildings. True to its origins as a nineteenth century village it has an innate suspicion of unruliness and a keen appreciation of its own provincial splendour.

Nevertheless, it was where we chose to live and I had a deep affection for it (one that manifested itself as much in the form of frustration as pure enjoyment). I would make sure to walk through at least some part of it everyday. So I suppose it fulfilled the same function as the aforementioned Darwinian garden: a familiar scene divested of distractions, devoted to pure routine. Except Vinohrady is no garden paradise, not really: it is perched precariously on a hilltop, bordered by grungy, ex-working class rival Zizkov to its north; the congested New Town to its west; and on its south the sprawl of smoggy Vrsovice and Nusle. Thus the villagey intimacy is often broken by an element of the strange or unexpected, the possibility of danger: call it the equivalent of Chekhov's gun, then. Every minor alteration in a frame so familiar has the power to focus the attention: a new scrawl of graffiti here; some police tape there. Some droppings of fallen plaster here; a smashed window there.

Once on our road the body of a dead taxi driver sat in his car for several days before residents finally noted the smell. A very Chekhovian detail that (I read somewhere that Chekhov liked to read newspaper headlines out-loud, their removal from context heightening their absurd potential). For a few hours a forensics team milled around in white boilersuits and closed the road to traffic. Later some flowers arrived in the spot where the car had been. We hadn't noticed the body; but we did notice those flowers. Like probably everyone else who heard about the dead taxi driver we were strangely, selfishly comforted by the fact he hadn't lived on our road. Indeed, he wasn't even Czech but foreign, possibly Ukrainian. What a relief then. Life could go back to normal.

The whole year passed like this: the pleasure of a familiar break in the trees where the sun crept through; this or that particular facade with its pastel yellow or myrtle; the woman who smoked a cigarette and talked to her neighbour at half past eleven every day; the trams just audible as they shunted up Francouzska; the weather slowly improving and the layers of coats and scarves departing; the walk from my flat - much quicker by tram - to IP Pavlova metro, via the breezy Namesti Miru and down Jugoslavska, out of Vinohrady and into the bustle of the New Town.

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