Friday, 31 May 2013

Safe return

My four train journeys yesterday and today have all been uneventful, and here I am back at home again. At Cheltenham Station the reception party consisted of Caroline - and Thomas! None of us were expecting him to come from Lisbon for this weekend's celebrations: a lovely surprise, in springing which Sarah has been instrumental.

For the third time in four, I had a sleeping compartment to myself, travelling from Munich to Paris. No disturbances. The early morning run through Eastern France revealed just how much rain has been falling there recently.

In Paris, I wandered round the 10th in search of breakfast, passing some jolly looking shops. In one window, a sign: "Thanx (sic) God I'm a V.I.P." Another went by the name "Yak & Yeti." Johann Strauss's bust enlivened a square I passed through. On the Eurostar, people around me had been in Paris for the tennis, and were returning disappointed at so many matches being lost to the weather. But today at home it's warm and sunny.

Thursday, 30 May 2013

The road home

Adam drove me to the station after breakfast: it was pouring with rain, otherwise we would have gone by the  very efficient tube - easy to access from where he lives, and the whole public transport system is free for us elderlies: no tickets or passes seem to be needed.

From Budapest, there are trains to Munich every two hours: arriving at Keleti, I find that my reservation is in fact for the train two hours later. Problem: but overcome by Adam's tact and the inspector bending the rules. I wouldn't want to have been in Hungary without an interpreter at my side.

Last time I was there, I remember Adam walking me to Margaret Island in order for us to be able to converse without fear of eavesdropping devices: this time, his concern was about gypsies... and more particularly socialists: there is a much misguided European conspiracy against Fidesz, the conservative party currently ruling Hungary, he thinks.

However much standards of living have risen over four decades, I still find Budapest an uncomfortable place to visit, the beauty of the place and the kindness of its people notwithstanding.

After a crowded journey most of the way to Munich, I have four hours to kill here (more rain, an inhibition to sightseeing this time round), mainly in the station restaurant: it's called a tapas bar, which gives you an idea of how it feels. Nobody would of course know that I'm today celebrating (?) my 70th birthday.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Simon Boccenegra

Adam and I share a love of opera: together we saw Tales of Hoffmann one very hot night in London, and then Faust in Budapest on my first visit. On that occasion, the opera house was closed, so this evening, when he took me to see Simon Boccenegra, I was there for the first time. Most magnificent the Hungarian State Opera is too, more on the scale of the Staatsoper in Vienna than Covent Garden. In the stalls, the seats are wooden, so rather bum-numbing, but the legroom is fine. Once again, the night was warm.

S.B. is not my favourite opera, but it has its rousing moments. The production didn't excite me, and indeed had puzzling aspects, but the Fiesco (Giacomo Prestia) sang well. Judit's cousin leads the orchestra, and got us our tickets, along with a free programme and drinks in the plush Green Room. (No alcohol on sale there.)

Earlier, Adam had taken me on a grand tour of Buda (the National Gallery), and across the Chain Bridge to Pest - the Greham Hotel (with its Dale Chihuly chandelier) and St Stephen's Basilica. Returning by tram, we walked quickly past the street sellers - mostly more pressing than these I photographed.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Szechenyi Baths

My friend Roland had told me about Budapest's bath culture, and I was amazed Adam hadn't ever been to what seems to be its Big Daddy here, the Szechenyi Bath and Spa. A truly magnificent complex, it has 11 medicinal pools with water temperature of 28 C or above. That's indoors, and excludes several saunas. Outside, there are three large pools, one having an inner channel with water swishing you through it - rather alarming. Some bathers were sitting in the warm water playing chess. Others did water aerobics under instruction. We could have spent longer than our two hours there.

In the evening, we drove out of the central area of Buda to visit Adam and Judit's daughter, son-in-law and family (three daughters), and then further to see their younger son again in his newly-acquired bungalow, set in a large, leafy garden. There we met his wife (a judge) and their two characterful sons.

Monday, 27 May 2013

Budapest (or rather Buda)

More than forty years ago. I was invited to spend a couple of days in Budapest by an Hungarian doctor: I had met Adam in London where I was then living and let him sleep on the floor of my flat. My hospitality to him was amply repaid. We have kept in touch.

Now I am staying with him again for three nights. This evening I met his younger son Abel - the same age as Agnes and father of two sons of his own: Abel (in his spare time) plays in a band, Crescendo. Like his father he speaks excellent English which is just as well. He asks searching questions, which are hard enough to answer even in my own language.

Walking in old Buda this afternoon, I realised that I had forgotten how beautiful it was. "You have Edinburgh," my friend says, "but instead of the railway line between the Old and the New Town, we have the Danube."

Last night, Nicholas and I were due to share a sleeper on our train from Sighisoara. On being shown in, we discovered the window blind wasn't working. Big fuss! So the nice attendant ("I would like to go to live in England...") eventually showed Nicholas into a first class compartment in the next carriage, and thus we each ended up on our own. I soon fixed the blind, turned my watch back an hour and went to sleep: two customs interruptions, but not too bad a night.

Adam met us at Keleti Station, we dropped Nicholas off at his hotel and then crossed the Danube by the Chain Bridge to Buda. I barely remembered the flat where I'd stayed all those years before, though the address had stuck in my mind. It was good to meet Judit at last, though I had already encountered her rosary hanging from the car's rear view mirror. She greeted me with an elaborate breakfast, including cherries from by Lake Balaton. This evening, I ate a large plate of fresh peas from the same source.

Sunday, 26 May 2013

Last post from Romania

It's been an interesting week, walking in the forests and meadows of Transylvania, and spending the night in Saxon villages where the clip-clop of horses is more common than the screech of tyres. We have seen some excellent preservation, but it's the tip of an iceberg. No Saxons will be left in 50 years, and the gypsies, for all their ability to work with animals, aren't going to maintain the Saxon heritage in its richness. So, we have been in a vanishing world.

The animals are what most evokes it: cows, sheep, goats, ducks, hens, dogs, cats and especially horses. Many wear red cockades - to ward off the evil eye, we are told.

What a chancel ceiling Biertan church has! We arrived in the village yesterday evening, at the end of our five days of walking. Not that we did a lot of walking on our last day: we started by revisiting Floresti in the minibus, for a demonstration of the art of barrel-making. (The barrel-maker was away taking his child to hospital when we arrived there on foot the previous day.) All very interesting, but long drawn out: I found the two small puppies playing around the feet of some members of the audience an enjoyable distraction. On the information we were given a barrel-maker might earn all of €75 a week, which seems little enough on which to run a VW Golf and rent a satellite TV.

When we eventually escaped, Gabriel drove us to the outskirts of Nou Sasesc, where we began walking towards Copsa Mare. Descending into a broad valley, we came across a table and benches under some trees. It was a little early for lunch, but clearly this was the place for it. Why, there was even a row of hooks for our hats and bags. What we hadn't bargained for was that we were trespassing on a vast ladybird convention: they got into everything, including of course the food. And they weren't the red and black ones we are familiar with, quite charming in ones and twos, but black and white and in their millions. Yuk. It was left to Jill to lighten our mood with a story about - rather surprisingly coming from her - knickers.

It started raining as we neared Copsa Mare, John once again lifting our spirits with ice creams from the village shop. The large fortified basilica has an elaborate main altar above which hangs a painting of an unusual subject, Jesus with the Samaritan woman at the well. And around the altar, there are copper (or bronze?) reliefs, each with a fairly crude representation of a biblical scene - the adoration of the child Jesus by the shepherds; Jesus' baptism in the Jordan; the entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday; the angel's announcement of the resurrection; Jesus' ascension etc. Quite a moving series for all its simplicity. The minibus met us, so we were spared a short but steep walk up and over into the narrower valley containing Biertan - and an even more imposing fortified church. Getting out of our minibus, with its darkened windows, I was immediately importuned for money - the first place this had happened so overtly.

We dined below the church, in the Ungerlus "medieval" restaurant, and stayed nearby in the very comfortable Ungerlus Pension. Our room not only had its own bathroom, but a bath! Though it overlooks the main road, there's no traffic, and you can hear the crickets cheeping. For dinner, there was chicken soup with noodles, and then Dorada with spinach: one of our best meals. (Beer to drink, and good conversation at our - the less intellectual - end of the table.) I could however have done without the faux-historic paintings, helmets etc. that surrounded us.

We shared our earlier visit to the church, completed in 1522, with a large crowd of Japanese. You approach it via a long covered staircase. Biertan was for 300 years the seat of the bishop of the Lutheran Church of Transylvania. It's now on the UNESCO World Heritage list, with its stone ribbed vaulting, 28-panel altarpiece and a sacristy door with no fewer than 19 locks. From under the roof, you get a clear view of the steep terracing rising above the village: now overgrown, it was for centuries used for wine growing until Communism put an end to that.

The Eastern Bastion of the fortress around the church was not only for defence, but also a prison for men and women who had announced they wanted to divorce: they were kept there with only bread and water, one plate and one spoon, until they changed their minds. It's said that in 300 years only one divorce was recorded.

This morning, Gabriel drove us South a short distance (7 kms.) up the valley from Biertan to the smaller village of Richis. I had been expecting, having seen the original itinerary, to walk through it, but there was clearly a change of plan. Our friends Lucy and David Abel Smith have a house in Richis, and had told us about Herr Johann Schass, the guardian of the fine church. Though we didn't identify which their house was, his eyes lit up when I mentioned their names. As well as frescoes the church contains a number of Green Men: all had been thoroughly painted over at the Reformation and rediscovered only quite recently. Richis' altarpiece is 18th Century, and so built by Lutherans: it's odd therefore to see statues as you would in a Catholic church. One of them represents John the Baptist, pointing to an image of the crucified Christ (as in Colmar's Isenheim altarpiece). The figure of the Baptist was originally given bare legs: these however were covered up with trousers on behalf of a later generation of more readily scandalised parishioners.

Herr Schass, very aged, and with his voice "turning again toward childish treble", sat on the threshold of the church fondling its very large key. pointing out gleefully the sin holes adjacent to the entrance door: sinners were required to atone by rubbing with their finger until they had made a hole in the stone, he said. There must have been many such in the village, judging by the number of holes. Ionut finding some of his jokes hard to translate, was helped out by two Saxon ladies, visiting from Bucharest.

From Richis it was not a long drive to our final destination, Sighisoara. Nicholas and I have now left the rest of the party staying there, and are on our way by the night train to Budapest. But we had plenty time enough to explore the centre of what is a fine old town, birthplace of Dracula (alias Vlad the Impaler) who is naturally much in evidence in the souvenir shops, of which there are plenty. Climbing the 17th Century clock tower - it houses a museum - gave us (along with a horde of other tourists) a good bird's eye view. We also visited the Church on the Hill, approached by an even longer wooden staircase than Biertan's. A collection of painted altarpieces from other churches has been gathered together inside: the curator gave us an excellent talk about it all, in English. Unusually for Romania, no photography was allowed.

After a spell of calm weather, with only lightish rain since Thursday, the heavens opened as we came down. Kind Ionut was waiting at the foot of the covered staircase with umbrellas to save us getting soaked en route to the restaurant. (Lunch was again fish, but not as good as last night.)

I haven't mentioned - and I should do so - the church at Malancrav, which impressed me when we visited it yesterday morning. Although it was in course of restoration, the 16th Century altarpiece covered in plastic, we were yet able to admire the even earlier frescoes on the North wall of the nave and the chancel walls and ceiling. The temptation in the desert is portrayed graphically, with three devils climbing over Jesus' body, seemingly suspended from a spike - presumably on the Temple roof. It's just one of many memorable scenes (though sadly difficult to photograph).

Nicholas, Mark and I were staying in number 276 Malancrav, a beautifully restored MET guesthouse. Nicholas had two rooms, with three beds to choose from, none of them big enough for him (a tall man): two were in chests of drawers. However, he was right beside the bathroom we all shared: we had to walk outside to get to it - or there was an outside loo at the back if we preferred. (I didn't.)

We were looked after by Michaela and one of her seven children at supper: they live in the adjacent farmhouse. Just before we ate, there was a flurry in the village street, with everybody out clustering around three covered wagons, arrived from elsewhere with goods for sale. These were more like the gypsy vehicles we are used to at home, and the occupants were equally resistant to cameras - unlike the children who mobbed John and me. Meanwhile, the cattle, water buffaloes, goats and horses were stampeding through on their way down from their pastures: a wonderful sight on a sunny evening.

Saturday, 25 May 2013

Saes to Malancrav

The Mathias family welcomed us warmly at Saes. Theirs was the most modern tourist facility we had encountered in the villages to date - a large first floor living/dining/cooking area, and bedrooms off a corridor above. The bedrooms were small, and nearly all of us had to share two bathrooms, but it was very up together.

Outside, there was no sign of animals, dogs apart, but a large mobile still stood in the yard: we were given some of its product, the ubiquitous home-made Palinka, at dinner, as well as beer. I was serenaded to sleep by a nightingale, but awoke early, to find Julia already up and awaiting her taxi: sadly, the sprightliest amongst us was leaving the party early (to return home in time to leave for another holiday elsewhere in Europe!).

My pre-breakfast excursion took me well into the back streets of Saes, quite a large village it seems. The gypsy families live in smallish dwellings, some with pig pens alongside them. On one house an image of the Sacred Heart filled a window. In the garden of another, Romanian flags flew alongside a satellite dish. Walking round, my digital SLR camera prominent, I felt no fear. Far from cowering, threatening or begging, the young people - on their way to school - queued up for photographs to be taken.

On setting out later as a group, Ionut was soon pointing out the tracks made by a bear in the muddy path we were following, steeply upwards through the woods. Descending to the village of Stejarenii, we passed a huge bee hotel: suspended in front of it was a bee CD (hoho!).

By the time we arrived in the next village, Cris, we were ready for lunch, which we ate sitting in the courtyard of the huge Castle. Partly dating from the 15th Century, it belongs to the Bethlens, a Hungarian family, but there is no way they could ever afford to restore it to its former glory. The shiny new red roof looks rather out of place on what might otherwise be an impressive and romantic ruin. After our visit, kind John rewarded  himself and all his fellow sightseers with an ice cream each.

Our final walk yesterday took us over the ridge to Floresti, from where Gabriel bussed us to the altogether more prosperous looking village of Malancrav: we stayed there last night.

Friday, 24 May 2013

Storm of storms

At Saschiz we found ourselves in a much bigger community. Mark and I were given a room in the Hanul Cetatii Inn, which is on a main road, the first one we had encountered since approaching Viscri. Luckily, we were round the back, off a balcony with a good view of the fortress that overlooks the village. (It has a fortress as well as the fortified church with an immense separate tower.)

Supper was at the other end of the village, a distance away. Onka, our hostess, ran a restaurant at the back of her house with her French partner. A large gaggle of young American students were at a table parallel to ours.The food was better than the wine, but there was beer as an alternative. The best bit of all was the ice cream Mark and I shared back at our Inn afterwards.

Yesterday morning, we were guided round the church by the formidable Dorothea, before starting out on our walk. Leaving the village, we saw hay piled up as in a Monet painting. We were passed by a cart drawn by two horses, with a foal trotting along 50 yards behind. The cart had "POLITIA" and the Romanian flag on the back - it was the village policeman.

It looked a bit too bright for fine weather to last, and sure enough black clouds gathered and then the mother of all storms broke upon us, lasting what must have been a good half hour. Luckily, we were near a forest, so took refuge amongst the trees, not that they provided any protection against stair rods of rain. Robin, his attention diverted from his cryptic crossword, cheered us up with a fair rendition of Act 3, Scene II of King Lear.

A very wet party eventually reemerged into the open, and slithered the last mile or so down into the next valley: in doing so, we almost lost Jean in a sea of mud as we neared Daia, "the most depressing village we visited", as she said, "and not because of the rain." (We saw a gypsy woman using an old fridge as her basin for washing clothes right beside the closed-up church.)

From Daia (photographed, above), our driver Gabriel, dubbed the Archangel, ferried us to our pension in Saes: because of our wet state, we opted out of walking via two further villages en route, and were glad to find some heaters to dry our clothes. All seemed to agree that the great tempest made it was our most memorable day yet.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Getting into the swing of it

On Tuesday night, Mark and I slept in a huge room in one of the Mihai Eminescu Trust's guesthouses. The view of our beautiful building from the street was not enhanced by my hanging my shirt out of the window to dry. Although the accommodation was fine, I missed coming out into a noisy farmyard thronged with birds and beasts.

Not that Crit - our village - lacked livestock: soon after arriving, we witnessed the return of Adrian and Elena Sociu's huge herd of goats (with a few donkeys added in), returning from their day pasture. We all had dinner, and breakfast yesterday morning, chez Sociu, and naturally sampled the goats cheese (but at breakfast, along with tomatoes and cucumber). A bearskin hangs on the barn door.

After breakfast, an impressive young Saxon, Dietmar, one of only seven left in Crit, showed us round the fortified church, which is being restored. We then set off on foot uphill along more beautiful forest tracks,  and down through orchid-bestrewn meadows to Cloasterf.

Work on restoring this village's fine church had finished only on Tuesday, and we looked round alongside a posse of officials from the various conservation bodies and also the Lutheran pastor, who has charge of a dozen or so churches in the area. Besides the fine paintings on wooden panels, I admired a fat pigeon with large silver wings, sculpted and fixed on the underside of the pulpit canopy. (Its prehensile claws seemed ready to descend on the head of any preachers who deviated from their allotted 12 minutes.) The church tower is separate from the church itself, but both are - as usual hereabouts - surrounded by stern fortress walls.

Our path from Cloasterf took us through more meadows (dark blue butterflies with white-tipped wings), and a herd of cattle: the cowherds stood at a distance watching us pass, tarpaulins under their arms. We must seem like visitors from outer space. Then there was more woodland to pass through, before we descended onto a tarmac lane. It ran unfenced above a vast flock of sheep, guarded by a shepherd and at least half a dozen very fierce dogs. The road eventually led past hopfields before we crossed another ridge overlooking our destination for the night, Saschiz.

Our nice guide Ionut pointed out Lesser Spotted Eagles and some of the 11 protected species of  wildflowers. He was hazy though about the way down, so latched on to a gypsy boy who happened to be nearby (remarkable, as generally we saw almost no one while walking, apart from those looking after the grazing animals). This young friend led us into the village via his family's strip of land, but it involved scrambling over a ditch - a struggle for Robin, 75, with dicky knees and anxious about his only pair of clean shorts.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Our first Transylvanian trek

Our route from Viscri is taking us broadly Westwards, across the valleys of North-flowing tributaries of the Târnava Mare River. So, we are typically walking up through pastures and along forest tracks, crossing ridges, and then descending to another village in the next valley. Yesterday, however, riding in horse-drawn wagons was an alternative, the minibus carrying our luggage.

With us, the word "gypsy" connotes nuisance – crime and probably disease: how different to sit behind our driver Kostica, as he worked his pair of young horses (Maria, 4 and Stella, 3) so effortlessly, whistling a haunting tune as we bumped along, and using a stalk of grass to clean his ear! During our lunchtime picnic break, we tried on one another's hats, and he showed me how mine could be made to look different.

M. and I rode all the way to Mesendorf, and I then left her and joined the walkers. Earlier, riding through the forest, we surprised P. in the process of relieving herself behind an oak (or was it a hornbeam?): much ribaldry as she manoeuvred herself round the tree, in a vain effort to make herself invisible! (I was justly rebuked: "If you were a gentleman, you wouldn't mention it.")

Earlier, in the 13th Century Gothic church at Viscri, we heard from our guide, the gentle Walter Fernolend how marriages were arranged within each Saxon village, on the basis that "they'll learn to love each other later." And in the excellent museum, we read about "Reconciliation day", which took place each year on the day before Ash Wednesday. Men would wait outside the appointed house until the clock announced noon, then they would enter, in order of seniority, to find two neighbourhood fathers seated there: the younger read out the statement of accounts for the past year, and the penalties that had to be paid for absences from neighbourhood works or from burials. Fines were paid on the spot and recorded in the register. The neighbourhood fathers then talked about the works scheduled for the coming year.

The museum gives a good insight into a very different way of life. The villages may now no longer run on the controlled, collaborative, Evangelically-based lines they did in the seven or so previous centuries, but the bones of Transylvanian Saxon civilization remain: animals everywhere; the fortified churches still deemed worthy of restoration for some liturgical use; craftwork for sale; unfenced fields, unfertilised by chemicals.

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Viscri - another world

It was a relief to arrive here late yesterday afternoon: I hate minibus rides, especially when the road twists and turns. And it's a rough route, from the main road to this village, large one though it is, and now made celebrated by the Prince of Wales buying a house here. ("If you don't want your Prince Carolos, then may we have him?") We hear he is arriving next week for a short stay: all hush-hush.

In the wide main street of Viscri, one farmhouse is aligned (end-on) regimentally alongside another, each a different colour and with its decorated gable end; baskets hanging from pear trees, for deliveries. Mark and I have been sleeping in a large room in one of the houses, number 12, a private home. After the luxury of Casa Wagner the night before, we were sharing with two others a relatively primitive bathroom, but it wasn't far from our bedroom door and everything more or less worked. Early this morning I heard activity in the street outside: opening our window, this photograph is one I snatched - something approaching a stampede, with horses and goats alongside the cattle, all on their way to a hillside pasture.

From the street you approach our house through an archway, which gives onto a farmyard with a barn at its far end. Hens (one peering out of a dog kennel) and their chicks, ducks with their ducklings, geese and turkeys, as well as dogs and cats, are all inclined to be milling around, and there's a tractor of the sort you might almost see in a museum at home. Walking through the misty village, I saw a horse and cart brought to a house to pick up a sick calf. In a street with less elaborate houses, a Gypsy chased after an escaped pig.

Monday, 20 May 2013

Rain stopped play

Last night, in time for dinner, I met up here in Brasov with the rest of a party that my friend Mark had asked me to join. They had all flown to Bucharest - yesterday - where they had a tour round before what was evidently a long and tiring minibus journey: I felt lucky to have missed all that - transit rather than travel.

It's a novel experience for me, gaining admission to a group with an established chemistry, yet apparently willing to welcome an outsider into the magic circle. Judging from the conversations we are having, I am going to need to be on my mettle. Topics include 21st Century science, the multiverse, leaps of faith, technological fixes, and (of course) gay marriage. There is more than a hint of climate scepticism about, which could be tricky. However, the Alsatian moonshine I had brought with me went down well at the late evening session: most of us stayed up to sit outside the hotel in the great square on which Casa Wagner sits - the moon shining down on us.

We were sweltering rather when listening to the history of Brasov's bastion this morning on our tour of the bounds; but since lunch it has been pouring cats and dogs, and we had to scamper to avoid a thorough wetting as we crossed to our hotel. Until 1790, Romanians weren't allowed into the exclusively Saxon town of Brasov: hence, there is no Orthodox church within the old centre. We visited - briefly only (a service was beginning) - the Black Church, Europe's most Eastern Gothic building, before leaving the old city for the delightful first Romanian school (and a fine museum above it) a short distance outside the formidable Catherine's Gate: Vassily and Nic showed us round, the one ebullient as the other was taciturn.

Now we are sitting waiting, as parties do from time to time. My friend Richard is up to date on his postcards. Mark is deep into The Corrections, and... Oh, now we are off into the countryside!

Sunday, 19 May 2013


The sun is shining here, and indeed it's rather too hot for sight-seeing; so after a mini-wander around (an an excellent lunch), I'm sitting in the cool lobby of Hotel Casa Wagner, in Brasov's main square, away from the Whitsunday crowds, with an equally cool beer to hand. In other words, it's a good life!

My train journey came to an end this morning at 10ish, just under 48 hours after leaving Cheltenham. The best part was the last: I had my 3-person sleeper from Budapest on the Ister Express all to myself, and awoke to see hills peeping out of the mist and the sun slanting across the landscape from left to right, rather than from right to left as last evening.

The train was not, thankfully, in a hurry, so I was able to enjoy the very attractive and varied landscape - fields much divided up, sheep (with shepherds), hay stooks, woodlands with banks of false acacia trees in bloom, lakes and rivers, birdlife (plentiful), and even a couple of horse-drawn carts. They obviously haven't all gone for lasagna.

In the villages, each house with its steeply-raked roof, there was not a lawn to be seen: gardens are intensively cultivated with vegetables - all of course far ahead of ours at home.

The final run into Brasov was across flatter territory, snowy mountains being now the backdrop, a reminder of Brasov's strategic importance in old times. I received an uninvited (but rather welcome) history lesson from a certain Peter, who was unashamedly out to earn a little money: he approached me with a distinctive brand of English (Orwell is his favourite writer) as I stood taking a photograph of three trumpeters in costume high up on the platform of the city centre tower (they perform at 12 each day as a reminder of the role of the human fire alarms of former days, Peter told me). Vlad the Impaler was, he assured me, a goody: having read a full and very gory description of his methods in my Rough Guide, I remain unconvinced.

I really do recommend coming by train if you are thinking of Romania for a holiday. I had a delicious dinner in Paris - at Brasserie Flo, the station restaurant: in Munich, I arrived off the Cassiopeia in time for breakfast near the Marienplatz; and in Budapest I ate well at the recommended Rosenstein. Both German and Hungarian sleeping cars were more than adequate, though, going for a shower this morning, I found it in full use as a broom cupboard. And loo paper is BYO.

Switching between French, German, Hungarian and Romanian may sound interesting, but - though this feels like a contradiction in terms - English is the lingua franca.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Budapest (or rather Pest)

Sharing my sleeper from Paris to Munich, I found lovely Elena. Formerly from the Urals, she lives with a husband, who drives South to go fishing twice a year in Croatia. He had dropped her in Strasbourg, from where she'd caught the train to Paris for a week's sightseeing and shopping - less of the latter because of "too much choice". Now, she was en route to Vienna, where the fisherman would be put her into his net and drive back home to Moscow. He works in logistics, but his passion is competing to catch carp.

Elena, born in the USSR, says that, while not much interested in politics, she feels she is part of a lost generation. Her reading for idle moments is H.V. Morton's "In search of England" - in Russian. She has never been there, but taught English at secondary level before marrying.

It felt warm already on our early morning arrival in Munich. I had never spent any time in that city before, so walked rather eagerly towards the centre, some of the architecture of which was older (and finer) than I had anticipated. I discovered the baroque vastness of St Peter's Church, where again I found myself at Mass - in German, but ad orientem. The priest dispensed at the altar rails, mainly to kneeling communicants who received on the tongue. Moving afterwards to the Cathedral, I found another Mass about to begin, this time with choir and a very full congregation, many in traditional dress. Some celebration upon the eve of Pentecost evidently: I didn't stay long enough to discover what.

It was time to catch my next train, to Budapest. This was extremely full. The fine weather didn't last: cloudy in Salzburg, by Vienna it was pouring with rain. However, as we were leaving Austria behind, the sun came out again, glinting on the largest array of wind turbines I've ever seen.

Having crossed the Danube, the train arrived here just before five, at a very different sort of station from Munich's Hauptbahnhof. "Scruffy" sums it up, but I felt better about things after a lemon sorbet from the ice cream lady, and learning that the main façade is adorned with statues of James Watt and George Stephenson. Having worked out how to collect my onward ticket from the machine, I walked off to explore, and soon found myself in Kerepesi Cemetery, the Père Lachaise of Budapest. Idling round an eclectic collection of impressive tombs and memorials on a fine evening was just the perfect antidote to a day spent in a train crowded with lively children. A helpful man appeared at one point and handed me a plan of who was buried where, but I fear the names meant little to me. More usefully, he pointed me in the right direction for something nice to eat.

Friday, 17 May 2013

Paris 10e

Aristide Cavaillé-Coll - not a name with which I was familiar - was reputed to be the finest organ-builder of the 19th Century. He is commemorated by a garden near the Gare du Nord. I have been strolling around this part of Paris since arriving by Eurostar this afternoon, with time to spare before I catch the night train to Munich.

Sitting outside a café in the sunshine with a beer, I watched children being collected from school, mostly by grandparents. The atmosphere of this area resembles not at all that with which I am familiar, and even in daylight feels quite threatening to an old codger from Cheltenham. I took refuge in the large church of St Vincent de Paul and found Mass in progress - peaceful and dignified, as befitted an elderly congregation, but with a young, rather traditionalist priest.

Emerging, and before walking the short distance to the magnificent Gare de l'Est, I bought apricots, bread and peppermints at a supermarket ahead of the rest of my long journey. Now I'm enjoying dinner in the station restaurant.

Thursday, 16 May 2013


The village of Leintwardine, on the River Teme in far North Herefordshire, is where I stayed, in great comfort, last night. Its extremely active History Society asked me to talk about The Diary of a Shropshire Farmer.

Not only did the denizens of Leintwardine turn out in force, but I was given a splendid dinner (and breakfast) for my pains. And my hostess turned out to be a cousin by marriage, her grandmother featuring in one of the Diary's family trees I prepared as an Appendix.

The parish church's chancel hosts a collection of misericords: on the South side, they are ancient but much damaged. On the North, there are a couple of lively present day scenes, recently installed to commemorate the village pub's late landlady, Flossie, and the butcher (still happily with us). Andrew Pearson carved them.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Five babies

This is the nest on a shelf just outside our back door. The eggs our blackbird was sitting on are now hatched, and there is much fetching and carrying of worms!

Monday, 13 May 2013

Blossom dearies

We were invited for Sunday lunch by old friends who live on the Cotswold edge. Walking it off afterwards, I remarked on how indented the escarpment is; and how lyrical sheep look in a Springtime orchard!

Sunday, 12 May 2013


We had lunch with the three grandchildren yesterday, on Edmund's barge in Bristol Docks. The Bristol Walking Festival had its base just by the boat, and William and I went on a "plant" walk, down along towards Clifton. We spotted a mouse amongst the vegetation, well planted up and growing happily alongside the river, below the path, and presided over by a statue of the formidable Samuel Plimsoll.

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Father Tom Cullinan with Cheltenham Christian Ecology Link

I am still digesting an exceptional talk, given yesterday evening. Here's a link to a soundbite, illustrating Fr. Tom's delightful sense of fun, as well as his seriousness. And here's a link to a transcript I made of most of the talk and the Q/A session.

Already messages of appreciation have come in. One says, "The evening we had with Fr. Tom... was so nourishing and thoughtful! He is an inspirational speaker and I was reminded... and inspired to think again about what is important and how I live."

This shows the degree to which Fr. Tom has turned his back on the world, in order to live the simple life: we were telling him at breakfast, what each of the children were up to. "Thomas does web design," I said. "Web design?" he replied. "What's that?"

Friday, 10 May 2013

"101 signs and wonders"

I have been sifting through the photographs I took during my nearly four weeks in Spain. This is one of those I have now put onto my website in a loose collection, which gives a flavour of my pilgrimage. More anon, perhaps...

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Commercial and environmental

Gloucestershire Churches Environmental Justice Network arranged a site visit today at the premises of the Commercial Group. Though barely 500 metres from where we live, I had never before ventured down their road, which runs through the site of the former Leckhampton Station. Commercial's sustainability tsar, Simon Graham, gave us generously of both his time and his experience - a most impressive performance!

Since their Damascene moment, six years ago, Commercial have achieved in excess of a 75% reduction in carbon, and - as from Friday last - are able to say they do zero waste. The effect on both customers and suppliers must be very considerable.

Simon outlined three drivers for business to move towards sustainability. Seeing the need to be part of the solution, in looking at responsibility to shareholders. Resource constraints: durability necessitates stewardship. And finally the need to be able to look our grandchildren in the eye.

 I have probably quoted before the question asked by Sir Toby Belch, "Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?" Ale was there sadly none, but Simon did produce a packet of chocolate biscuits.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Angry atheists

"Why, O Lord, does your existence make atheists so angry?" asks Clifford Longley in his column in this week's edition of The Tablet. The article was of particular interest to me, as its author - a leading Catholic journalist - talks about his atheist father. "I was brought up a thoroughgoing atheist myself, which makes me a victim of what [Richard] Dawkins has labelled child abuse - the raising of children with the same religious beliefs as their parents."

Caroline and I, by contrast, brought up our four children as Christians, but at least one, probably more, are now non-believers, though whether or not they would describe themselves as atheist I know not.

We loved having our granddaughter Ida to stay for four nights (she is today back at school in Bristol), but I forbore to take her to church with me on Sunday.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Bookless in Cheltenham

The author of "God doesn't do waste!", Dave Bookless, was at St Matthew's today, asking "Churches and the environment: are they on the same planet?" "We Christians need to heed and answer the criticism that we separate human beings from the rest of nature," he urged. "Our grandchildren will want to know Why didn't they act?" And care for the poor goes along with, as Pope Francis has been ceaselessly stressing, care for the planet.

Every church congregation, Dave is convinced, should be first measuring its energy consumption, and then seeking to reduce it. To ignore this challenge is "to borrow from other species and from future generations."

A man of conviction, an excellent communicator - someone who walks the talk.

Saturday, 4 May 2013


With the sun shining today, we put a hammock out for the first time this year. Ida is staying the weekend. "Can I come on one of your long walks with you?" she (promisingly) asked.

Friday, 3 May 2013

Better than new

30 or so years ago, Caroline inherited a chair from her Godmother Ena Parkin. It saw good service before that time, and served me well also, when I worked at 25 Rodney Road. But latterly, all the springing had gone. It's an unusual shape, so we weren't eager to consign it to the tip (or offer it on freecycle). Now, it has now come back to life at the skilled hands of a very kind friend who, in retirement, took to upholstery. I collected it from him yesterday: it lifts the tone of our dining-room no end.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

New tenant

Today, I've been planting potatoes - Pink Fir Apple - having collected some bags of manure from a nearby horsiculturalist. Perfect weather for digging! The tulips are still at their best, as is the Magnolia: we were worried they would be over while we were away. With the house empty for much of that time, Mrs. Blackbird has built a nest on the shelf above the gumboots just outside our back door: four eggs so far.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013


My Wednesday walking colleagues were meeting at The Butcher's Arms in Sheepscombe today. I took this photograph, looking back at the village shortly after we set out, so the shadows are still quite long. Though I know the Painswick area a little, I hadn't done this walk before: some lovely views! And a perfect Spring day for it.