Metelkova

 

Street art in Ljubljana

Metelkova is an area in the centre of Ljubljana that was originally a military barracks, then was squatted in the early 90s when the Yugoslav army pulled out after Slovenia declared independence, and is now full of social centres, workshops and gig venues. (And a hostel where I stayed overnight before crossing the border to Klagenfurt for work).

The most famous area like this is Christiania in Copenhagen. I was very disappointed with Christiania when I visited last year. I liked some of the buildings there, but the central market area was sleazy and tacky and there was an aggressive atmosphere, and the place it most honestly reminded me of was the red light district in Amsterdam. Maybe its glory days were in the 60s and 70s when it was founded.

Metelkova is a different proposition. It had a friendly and relaxed attitude, and I never felt any qualms about wandering round by myself, an atmosphere probably helped by the fact that the city government takes a generally positive attitude to its existence. They still don’t pay any rent, but no-one seems to care. It was clean and pleasant- people seemed to respect the communal space.

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This Means Nothing To Me

 

(A photo I took in Salzburg a couple of years ago)

(Not just a cheerful travelogue- politics and history and the life and death of Stefan Zweig)

I have been in Austria for a week and a half now for teaching work. I meant to update last week, but some brutal 7.30 am start times, heavy snow, a lot of planning to do outside the classroom, and a diet of pure stodge in a small town with few dining options (and even fewer options for vegetarians) tired me out. It feels strange to be in small-town Austria, where not much tends to happen, while political turmoil with dire consequences for many vulnerable people goes on around the world.

The UK does not feel like a good place to be right now, but I can’t stay away forever. I will not be back for more than a few days until April at the earliest anyway. I’m now in Steiermark, the start of the Alps, and the snow is all gone, and there is rain much the same as an English winter. For my job I get sent to run workshops in schools in towns few tourists visit. Apart from next week in Vienna, I’m criss-crossing Austria on the train to various small towns dotted around. I enjoy lengthy solo train trips in the mountains with suitable music and snacks, but I don’t enjoy lugging a suitcase filled with 5 weeks worth of supplies, even if it does have wheels.

When people picture Austria, they have an image of Vienna, elegant, full of opera houses, art museums and slightly kitschy Mozart souvenirs, and the Alps, full of charming wooden chalets, drifts of powdery snow, and hearty people in lederhosen (and probably adding an imaginary background of mountains to Vienna).

The east of Austria (where Vienna is) is actually mostly flat. I’ve been in Vienna overnight two Saturdays in a row now, but was either at a work training event, or leaving early the next morning for further travel. I’ll be there for a full week from Sunday anyway and will take full advantage of my afternoons off to see some exhibitions. I have been to Vienna many times before, and frequently at times of year with better weather.

There’s something a little bit low-key seedy about Vienna outside of the grand buildings on the tourist routes (although it is a very safe city). Run-down little shops that seem to have been there forever, rotting art nouveau stations with no staff on the green Ü4 line, decrepit looking branches of Norma and Pennymarkt supermarkets with peeling beige lino tiles and flickering neon lighting that make Lidl look luxurious and which close on the dot at 6pm. Indoor smoking is still legal (and very prevalent). The Danube is not as central as you might expect. German TV often picks a Vienna accent for small-time crook characters. There’s the Vienna schmäh, the mix of charming manners and snide humour. And the (increasingly familiar) accent, where people mumble yet draw out the vowels at the same time.

Last year I read The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig, the memoir by the Austrian writer who was an international star between the wars until his persecution by the Nazis (and topic of this weirdly personal bit of vitriol by Michael Hofmann here). He had been neglected until lately in the UK, until the release of the Grand Budapest Hotel (loosely based on several of his stories) caused his books to be reissued, and in particular The World of Yesterday to be translated by one of my favourite translators, the incomparable Anthea BellThe World of Yesterday covers his upbringing in 1890s Vienna, the shock of the First World War and the rise of Fascism, and ends with his escape to Brazil (and eventual suicide).

Stefan Zweig discusses how in fin-de-siècle Vienna, discussion or education about sex was forbidden, yet brothels and porn were everywhere you went. Boys at his school were barely allowed to speak to girls their own age, yet got themselves into terrible anxieties by leaving their wallets (with their ID card inside) in brothels and dreaded being blackmailed that the managers would tell their parents. No wonder this was also the era of Freud and Kafka, and psychoanalysis, As an adult in the 1930s, he’s absolutely relieved that aspect of the era is over. No-one cared about sports or football, teenagers were obsessed with actors and poets, and poets were like rock stars. As a respectable secular Jewish family in Vienna, the Zweigs felt comfortably accepted in society- these things can change or be changed any minute.

After the Anschluss, and the increasing restrictions on Zweig, the fact that he could practically see Hitler’s house in Berchtesgaden from his own house on a mountain outside Salzburg only rubbed it in further. His success and international respect as a writer could do nothing to change it, and he and his wife ended up having to leave Austria for Brazil (via the UK and USA). Being a German-speaking writer, whose work was eventually banned in every country that spoke his language, and an internationalist who now could barely visit or communicate with any of his writer friends dotted across Europe drove him to despair.

Something that also sticks out in the current political climate of increasing nationalism, calls for closed borders and countries turning away Syrian refugees, is Stefan Zweig’s (and others) utter outrage at the closing of national borders and introduction of passports in WWI. Until then all borders were open, and anyone could travel anywhere, and passports and border controls felt like a loss of freedom and a scary imposition of control (for the record, I am 100% pro open borders).

“‘People went where they wished and stayed as long as they pleased. There were no permits, no visas, and it always gives me pleasure to astonish the young by telling them that before 1914 I travelled from Europe to India and America without a passport and without ever having seen one’. The Great War and its aftermath increased what Zweig calls ‘a morbid dislike of the foreigner, or at least fear of the foreigner…. The humiliations which once had been devised with criminals in mind were now imposed upon the traveller, before and during every journey. Thereafter, everyone required official photographs, certificates of health and vaccination, letters of recommendation and invitations, and addresses of relatives and friends for ‘moral and financial guarantees’ … His Austrian passport became “void,” as he puts it after the Anschluss, the Nazi annexation of Austria in 1938. He was forced to ask British authorities for an emergency white paper, ‘a passport for the stateless’. He came to understand what an exiled Russian acquaintance had once told him: ‘Formerly man had only a body and a soul. Now he needs a passport as well for without it he will not be treated like a human being’..” (from this article)

Torbole

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After Malcesine, Limone sul Garda and Riva del Garda, I present to you Torbole. I went to Torbole just because the boat from Riva del Garda to Malcesine stopped there along the way, and I’d never been there before. It was a weird little place. Like Riva, it used to be in Austria until 1918. Everyone except the staff of the restaurants seemed to be German, and really into intensely staring at you in the street. The light and the way the water looked along the harbour front was beautiful though, and I spent most of the hour before the boat back sitting on a bench soaking it in. I don’t think this is a real place, I think it’s a screen from one of those new-age computer games from the 90s like Myst.

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Riva del Garda

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So far I’ve shown you Malcesine and Limone sul Garda. I also took the boat to Riva del Garda at the northern end of the lake (which is also in a different province- Trentino). It was raining all day, so I figured I might as well go to the colder, rainy end of the lake and visit the museum, and save the outdoorsy stuff on the southern end like archaeological sites for a sunny day.

From 1815-1918 Riva was actually in Austria, and although it’s typically Italian in many ways, there’s a definite alpine influence there (and a lot of German and Austrian tourists). I had been there once before, in about 2000. A little while ago I dug up some photos I’d taken on a disposable camera then, and posted them here.

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Limone sul Garda

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In my last post about Lake Garda, I showed Malcesine, where I was staying. Now I’m heading over to Limone sul Garda on the other side of the lake. I didn’t spend much money while I was in Italy, but a hefty chunk of the (tiny) budget went on ferry tickets. Boats constantly criss-cross the lake to all the towns, and it’s the most scenic way to see the area. If you’re in a hurry, you can take the bus on land, but I was on holiday, so by definition, not in a hurry.

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Malcesine, Lago di Garda

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At the end of May I went on a last-minute trip to Italy by myself. I had given up my tenancy in London, because I was fed up of paying a small fortune to a landlord who was unwilling to fix the serious leak in the ceiling that was probably going to bring the plaster down sometime soon, and a relative asked me to house-sit. The house-sitting date then changed, but it turned out to be cheaper for me to visit friends in Yorkshire, and then go on holiday for a week than it was to extend my tenancy, which shows how ridiculous the prices are in London now. As it was a last minute thing, I had to go on my own. I don’t mind travelling solo though, I used to do it regularly for work, and travelling alone is better than going on holiday with someone who doesn’t want to do any of the same things as you. (In my case, wandering aimlessly for hours and hours, taking hundreds of photographs and eating a lot).

I considered going to Crete, because I wanted to see all the Minoan archaeological sites, but it was hard to work out where stay, and which places were Magaluf style budget party towns (not really where I wanted to go). I asked my Greek friend Ellina, but it turns out she’d never been to Crete either.

So in the end I booked a deal to Malcesine on Lake Garda. Malcesine was the first place I visited in Italy when I was 12 or 13. Throughout my teenage years I visited Italy 2-3 times a year after the budget airlines started doing £20 tickets to Pisa and Brescia, and after I graduated I did some teaching work in Northern Italy, and I’ve seen most of the country now bar the furthest three southern regions (Apulia, Basilicata and Calabria) Sardinia and Sicily. Although I had been to some other towns on the lake since (I’ve got some disposable camera photos I took around the turn of the century that I dug up here), I hadn’t been to Malcesine since that first holiday, so I was really interested to see whether it had changed and how much. While I was there I started writing a zine about the trip, and also about Italy in the 90s/early 2000s and now. I haven’t finished it yet though. I wrote in more detail there, so my blog entries will concentrate more on images.

While I was on Lake Garda, my biggest expense was ferry tickets. I took the ferry each day to a different place around the lake. As the scenery is stunning, I took a lot of photos. I’ve whittled them down to around 10 shots or so per place, but I’ll post them gradually, so you don’t get overkill of views of water and the Alps.

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Salzburg

On the way from Niederösterreich to Vorarlberg I stopped off alone in Salzburg along the way. I had to change trains in Vienna, and after a week of hearty, dairy-laden alpine food I was very, very thankful to eat some dhal and chapattis at the station. I really, really liked Salzburg and would gladly return there. I don’t know what it is about the city, but it just had a really nice atmosphere. I arrived at about 5pm, found the hotel really easily, and dumped my stuff and went for a wander. It’s an old university town, with a castle perched on an outcrop of the mountain looking down. There is a stereotype in Austria that people in Salzburg are snobby, but I found them friendly enough.

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St Wolfgangskirche, Niederösterreich

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While in Kirchberg-am-Wechsel we were given a tour of a disused church perched up on the mountainside. It has suffered a lot of misfortune over the years (if you can read German there is a wikipedia article here), it burnt down and was rebuilt twice, and is furnished with all kinds of leftovers from other churches, which makes it more interesting.

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Kirchberg am Wechsel

wooden house

Last Summer I spent a week working at the junior school in Kirchberg am Wechsel, a tiny mountain town on the eastern end of the Alps on the border between Lower Austria and Styria. It is essentially one long street between some mountains, with “Lower Austria’s finest stalactite cave” (more on that later) and a yearly Wittgenstein festival. As mountains go, by Austrian standards they are pretty tame, mostly being below the tree-line. When I said something to the kids about the mountains they basically went “what mountains?” and when I pointed out of the window they went “oh yeah, those, there are much better mountains in other places”. Still, I like any kind of mountains, and the Wechsel is still 1,743m high, so it’s hardly a hill. Mountains/hills and water, that’s what I like. I wouldn’t do well somewhere like Kansas.

forest 2

There weren’t many surnames to go round at the school, and a lot of the children were cousins. There’s a game I play with the younger children called “change places if …” which is essentially musical chairs, but they only change places if they match a condition someone shouts out. This is the first time I have ever had things like “change places if you have some cows” cause the majority of the kids to swap chairs. I also said “change places if you have blonde hair” and only the kid with white blonde hair moved, the other 10 or so blonde kids seemed to think they had brown hair. The Alps!

The landlady of the guesthouse cooked me loads of amazing vegetarian things with pumpkins, and mushrooms she’d picked herself in the mountains. The portions however were intended for people doing serious hiking rather than making sock puppets with junior school children, and I kept worrying her that the food was no good because I could never clear the enormous platters. I also drank a lot of Almdudler.

At one point I kept hearing what sounded like the Twin Peaks music through my bedroom wall, and I wondered if I was imagining it. There turned out to be some kind of “relaxation veranda” downstairs next to the little stream where they had a chillout cd on a loop which did sound a lot like the Twin Peaks music.

forest

It was the kind of place where when you go to the supermarket, the cashier goes “oh, you must be the English teacher!”. The local branch of Spar also sells lederhosen and dirndls. You know you are in rural Austria when you can buy lederhosen at the supermarket. And yes, people do honestly own them and wear them on special occasions. They are quite expensive actually, about €300 for an outfit, and made of really nice materials. This magazine also exists, with patterns to sew the various featured dirndls. Flicking through the magazine feels like living in some pleasant but odd Heidi alternate universe.

path

The local accent was pretty strong, kind of a cross between Vienna and Styria. The following week I was in Feldkirk on the Swiss/Liechtenstein border where they have a totally different accent (and which is in general a more cosmopolitan area) and I had to remember to change my pronunciation of kirk to not get laughed at. In Kirchberg it’s like keeerrrrkbeeerrrrrk and people will not get you if you pronounce the town name any other way, in Feldkirk they pronounce it as you would in English.