Old Fights & New Places

First of all, many thanks to Astrid for spending hours poring over second-hand books on what felt like miles of shelves in Oxford bookshops.

I thought all three books in this post were very good, but especially Fantasia and the stories from Guatemala were also gruesome. The wars between France and Algeria are something I had been vaguely aware of in a sense of ‘something happened’, but Fantasia really brought home all the atrocities people must have suffered and the loads their offspring still carry today. Guatemalan history, on the other hand, was totally new to me. This is one of the many fascinating aspects of my reading project – it makes me explore things about the world which I had hitherto been unaware of.

65 Algeria: Assia Djebar – Fantasia

This novel interweaves the lives of women from the middle of the 19th century to our time. It was horrifying and deeply moving to read about their suffering during the wars with France. At the same time, one could spot some rays of hope and reconciliation between the people of the countries involved. I listened to the audiobook in German, but for me personally a print or e-book edition might have worked better. Narrator Birgitta Assheuer did a very good job, but the structure of the book and the jumping between different eras meant it was easy to lose track. Although I guess many of the described experiences and thoughts of the protagonists are actually (and often unfortunately) independent of any era.

66 Basque Country: Bernardo Atxaga – Obabakoak

That the Basque Country has its own language, called Euskara or Basque, was something I learned by reading my book of choice for the Netherlands, Lingo. So it was particularly exciting to read this collection of stories which neatly made up the rich tapestry of Obaba, the village of the title. There were local idiosyncracies connected to Euskara or Basque-French-Spanish history, but I also recognised the village where I grew up. In fact, there were so many allusions in the text, and connections I only superficially recognised that I’ve got to reread this one (and probably several times).

67 Guatemala: Eduardo Halfon, Maurice Echeverría, Denise Phé-Funchal, Javier Payeras – Geschichten aus Guatemala (Stories from Guatemala)

As mentioned above, Guatemala was totally terra incognita for me. So reading these four short stories was exciting and also challenging at the same time. Since all of them dealt with the topic of war, loss of humans, and loss of humaneness, they left me deeply troubled. Yet I immensely enjoyed them, especially the one by Denise Phé-Funchal which had a really unexpected plot-twist.


Exploring the East: Rožňava and Betliar

On my journey to explore the eastern part of Slovakia, I went on from the border with Ukraine to Rožňava, a lovely little town close to the Hungarian border. The bus connections worked very well, and the weather played along too, so I could just watch amazing landscapes flying by.

In Rožňava I met up with one of my students, Vojto. He had invited me over to show me around his patch and I stayed with him and his mum for a few days. I had a really great time – thank you both very much again!

Rožňava is a small, but beautiful town, which used to be extremely significant for mining, especially silver and other metal ores.

plaqueToday, it’s a rather quiet place where there’s not much work to be had, so many people are leaving. For tourists, however, it’s still a fab place. If you’re interested in mining & geology, there’s a big museum to introduce you to all you ever wanted to know about that.

For those who prefer the open air, you can climb up the clock tower and enjoy the views.

roznava-tower roznava-view-1 roznava-view-2The tower plays a little tune every full hour, and it’s always a different one, from folk music via classical to jazz. A bit tacky, but I liked it.

The whole region is also called Gemer, which is an old Hungarian name. I really like the way how those names bring back the history of a place! There’s so much to see, both in terms of cultural heritage and outdoors, I only scratched the surface. A good overview is on this website: http://www.retep.sk/indexe.htm

If you’re there, and castles or manor houses are your cup of tea, you shouldn’t miss the Manor House of Betliar. It’s only a handful of kilometres away from Rožňava and can easily be reached by bus.

betliar-castleThe guided tour (in Slovak, but German and English are on offer, other languages come on leaflets) took just under an hour. If you’ve ever watched those ‘Sissi’ films about the Austro-Hungarian empress Elisabeth – this is the castle of her Hungarian attaché Andrássy. I was more impressed by the open-mindedness of the family, especially compared with contemporary Slovak politicians.

betliar-koran-curtainThe manor house also comes with a huge park with a lake and little rivers. What impressed me most, however, was of course the library. betliar-library

Dinosaur of the week: Ostrich

ostrichI met this Struthio camelus a few years ago in Swaziland.

The subspecies Struthio camelus syriacus became extinct around 1966.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arabian_ostrich: ‘The widespread introduction of firearms and, later, motor vehicles marked the start of the decline towards extinction of this subspecies.’

Exploring the East: Nová Sedlica & Poloniny National Park

Travelling to the east of Slovakia is, in principle, really easy and convenient if you don’t shy away from longish bus rides. However, when I looked into where I wanted to go in my week off I found that up-to-date information was tricky to come by, especially in English. Luckily, my students provided me with some ideas where to start. So this post is also a small collection of hopefully useful links should you decide to go on a journey to the East, too.

First of all: transport. To go to the National Park of Poloniny or Bukovske Vrchy, I recommend going from Humenné to Snina or Stakcin by either bus or train. You can find connections here: http://cp.atlas.sk/vlakbus/spojenie/. In Stakcin, there is also the headquarter of the National Park. From there, take the bus to Nová Sedlica. It’s less than 60km but takes almost two hours, because the scenic road is narrow and comes with lots of bends.

In general, there is actually plenty of information on the internet, but most of it is in Slovak. And even though the beech forests are a UNESCO heritage site, people seem to have little interest in it. Several Slovaks I asked about it had never even heard of it before. The whole region between Humenné and the Ukrainian border is called Horny Zemplin, and their website is very good if one speaks Slovak.

Anyway, I made my way there, and my phone was really optimistic:phone

But no, I didn’t cross the border, although that could have happened without me noticing.

I arrived in Nová Sedlica in the afternoon in best hiking weather, so I strolled around the village and along the little river that flows through it. It was very pleasant.


nova-sedlicaIn the distance, I could already see Kremenec, the mountain where Slovakia, Poland and Ukraine share a border on the summit. In the village, however, my interest was kindled by a rather unusual exhibition. Signpost were written in Slovak and Cyrillic which turned out to be Ruthenian, the language of Rusyns. Some of it has some German connections, it seems.

language-exhibit language-exhibitionAs you can see in this last photo, there were some clouds on the horizon, and by the time it got dark it was overcast. I had been looking forward to seeing some really dark skies since the area is Slovakia’s only Dark Sky Park. It was not to be.

The next morning I took off to hike up the mountains, and about half an hour into my little adventure the rain started. Another half an hour or so later, I was – despite my South-Georgia-tested waterproof jacket – beginning to feel like I was having the second shower of the day. The water was forming little creeks under the mighty trees. So I had to think: rain – cold – slipping & hypothermia, rain – noisy – I can’t hear animals, they can’t hear me.

signAt which point I made the unadventurous but sensible decision to turn around. Totally soaked, I reached the entrance of the National Park, where there was a little museum and office for the rangers. It was dry – that was all what I wanted at that point. A young ranger there seem to be glad that I had shown up, and she showed me around the little exhibition while I was drying. This is how I met Archie the European Bison.

archie-the-bisonArchie used to be the alpha-bull in his herd in the park. He was several decades old when he broke a leg and died. But his family is increasing. There are apparently more than two dozen animals now (only a handful were re-wilded), and they roam the region of the Starina basin in the park. I was even allowed to give him a hug – his fur was much thicker than I had expected. My hands almost sank into it. It was also incredibly soft. I also admired other stuffed locals, like a lynx, a wildcat and a Little owl.

So, dry and happy I ventured back outside, where the downpour had stopped. Only for it to start again a few minutes later. I arrived wet and cold at my guesthouse, the lovely Penzion Kremenec, where I spent the afternoon drinking tea made from fresh mint, staring out of the window.

rainWhen it finally stopped raining for good, I took another evening stroll. I admired the lichens and reached the conclusion that I would have to come back.marking

From Rags to Riches to Nirvana

My project to read a book from each country & territory continues, and along the way I’m making some great discoveries. One of them is the excellent blog Biblibio, reading which has encouraged and enlightened me to include more female authors, who will appear here in due course. At the moment, I’m still working on a many-months-old pile of books. Many thanks to my friend Meg for recommending the book of choice for Bhutan.

62 Bhutan: Doji Dhratyul – Escapades Awakenings

Self-publishing might free an author of some restrictions that come with the publishing industry, but in my experience it also comes with a lack of editing. In this particular case, I think, the rags-to-riches plot would have gained a lot if some more editing had happened. Having said that, this book is a brave introduction to Bhutanese society, in particular when it comes to issues like sexual exploitation of rural girls and women or child labour both in rural and urban areas. The land of Gross National Happiness is so much more than mountains and temples, and this book shows that on every page.

63 New Zealand: Eleanor Catton – The Luminaries

This book was a totally unexpected page-turner. I completely ignored all the astrological stuff (I’m more on the astronomical side of things). Apart from that, it was a welcome challenge to travel so far in space and back in time. Quite often, I felt as if I was really there in the endless rain, searching for gold and answers.

64 Russia: Victor Pelevin – The Sacred Book of the Werewolf

A woman who is a fox who is a prostitute who … no. The best thing I can say about this book is that it was a critique of modern Russia – to which I can’t add anything because I lack the knowledge. Otherwise, I found it pseudo-philosophical or pseudo-buddhistic waffle.

Exploring the East: Humenne

Moving on from Kosice further northeast, the train went through a lovely rural landscape of fields, green hills and castle ruins on top of hills. I arrived in Humenne around sunset, found Hotel Karpatia where I had booked a room for the night and settled in. The hotel was very close to the train station and proved to be a very good choice – quiet, clean, friendly staff, good food.

The next morning, I set out to explore the little town of Humenne. Firstly, I went up a hill on top of which I found a cemetery and fabulous views of the surrounding mountains.

cemetaryThe cemetery had a civilian area, but also a military one. In one part of the latter, Slovak and German soldier were buried together. The fallen soldiers from the Red Army had their own patch.russian cemetary

Too much contemplation of death on a Sunday morning is not so much fun I thought, so I ventured back into town to have a look at the local castle and its museum, but unfortunately that was closed. In the castle park, however, I found lots of other possible options. paths

I decided to enjoy the open-air museum exhibiting traditional Slovak houses from the times when the country was more rural. Judging by the photographs in some buildings, that was around the middle of the last century. I loved strolling around the mostly wooden houses – the smell is so homely! On top of that, the museum grounds are in an old orchard. Ripe plums and apples added to the aroma; and a tiny fellow found some food. black squirrel

The highlight of the museum was without a doubt the wooden church, formerly of Nova Sedlica, Slovakia’s easternmost village. Originally, this church was built without using any metal nails, but I think during the rebuilding a few bits of metal were added. Inside, photography was forbidden, but some of the icons on show were really handsome. wooden church

Humenne is really small, but had a welcoming atmosphere, and the town is also aware of its connection to world literature: schweijk

There’s even an outdoor gallery, well, kind of.  I think it’s really worth paying a visit to Humenne, and the surrounding hills promise very good hiking.gallery

Exploring the East: Košice

During the summer, I took a week-long holiday and ventured eastward to explore more of Slovakia. The furthest I had been so far were the mountains of the Mala Fatra region and the High Tatras, which are both amazing. This made me very curious about an area of Slovakia which even some of my students haven’t been to yet – the East.

So I got on a train from Bratislava to Košice which is the second biggest city in Slovakia. I only had a couple of hours to stroll around the Old Town centre. I was welcomed by the sight of the cathedral:

cathedral KosiceThe spires reminded me a lot of Oxford, as did the gargoyles. However, the ones in Košice are decidedly more exciting than the college ones in England:

gargoyle 1 gargoyle 2It was a sunny Saturday afternoon. People were out enjoying themselves. The main square exuded a peaceful atmosphere.

Kosice main squareAnd this tells you what people are up to after nightfall: shop