Miracles on the peace walk
Follow a trail along the old Iron Curtain in central Europe
One August day at 7.30am, with three companions, I arrive in the Hungarian village of Fertoszeplak. We have walked 8km in the past two hours, and have been told Fertoszeplak can provide breakfast. But we can’t find the cafe. Then I spy a man in a wheelchair propelling himself down the centre of the street, apparently led by a dog on a leash. I bowl him up, ask if he speaks German (Hungarian is out) and simultaneously make hello noises to the dog. The dog bites and there is blood rushing from the fleshy pad of my thumb. To double the shock, my blood seems to have miraculous properties, as the man bounces out of his wheelchair and scampers back down the road. A woman leaning over her front fence opens her gate to me. With head thrown back and fingers tapping against the thumb, she lets me know the “crippled” man is drunk, illegally in charge of an unregistered vehicle on a public roadway and a savage dog to boot.
The woman washes my hand and then brings out what surely must be the largest collection held anywhere of Hungarian-German dictionaries. We work together in search of a mutually intelligible phrase for “Can I see a doctor?”
I’m now told my bite has become one of the legends of last year’s European Peace Walk. This 600km trek from Vienna to Trieste is the newcomer among the long-haul walks in Europe, most (if not all) being the offspring of Spain’s Camino to Santiago de Compostela. The EPW is the brainchild of a young Irishman, Grattan Lynch, a veteran of the Camino, and it was first walked in 2014.
There was no traditional, much less millennium-old, route here, and hence no infrastructure. It has had to be explored, mapped and signposted. Lynch seems to have happily conflated two ideas — a commemorative walk starting with the centenary of the outbreak of World War I, and a route that follows the Iron Curtain, the defining feature of the Cold War. So Lynch has routed us from Vienna to Bratislava, then sou’sou’west, weaving in and out along the Austro-Hungarian border (but always staying overnight in Hungary, because it is cheaper), then into Croatia, down across Slovenia and out on to the Adriatic coast at Trieste.
The EPW is open only from late July to late August. You plump for a starting day, walk your 30km to the sole designated accommodation for the night, and for the whole of the walk you’re stuck with those who have chosen the same day, unless you, or they, drop out. I start with five others but within a fortnight I am, briefly, the last man standing.
The Canadian woman has done something to her toes, the young Belgian man has had mental health issues, the young Irish teacher has grown so infuriated at Lynch’s dire case of Irish Miles (his 150m was everyone else’s 500m) that she has asked her parents to send her a plane ticket from Zagreb to Granada so she can refresh herself properly for school at their home in Spain. The sight-impaired Sydney woman has had a broken ankle set in plaster in Croatia, and retires to Birmingham, where the plaster is taken off because the break has been a misdiagnosis. Her marvellously supportive husband turns back at the plane out of Zagreb and decides, to my delight, that he’ll walk on.
You don’t do the EPW if your main goal is undiluted comfort. Places to lay our heads include bunks and stretchers in hostels, holiday camps, Habsburg military barracks and sports halls. From one such hall in Hungary we have to be led down the main street, our towels over our shoulders, by a local woman to a civic centre where she sits on the stairs outside the bathroom while we shower. Nor are you guaranteed picturesque scenery. Western Hungary, for example, means plains of cornfields and ploughed earth.
The only approximation to Tourist Central anywhere on the EPW is Ljubljana, but that’s a charmer of a capital city, and we take a day out at Lake Bled and restrict our walking to the 6km circuit of the lake. In fact, Slovenia wins our popularity vote; 57 per cent of the country is wooded, for a start, though that means mountains ...
The terrain is crucial to the other legend of the year’s EPW. Three days to my rear is a party of 12, a large group considering a total of just 200 did the EPW in 2015. This group has become notable for one reason — a young woman has had a three-year-old son in a stroller. Her baggage train has included a dog, a scooter and a bag of toys. In Trieste I meet a man who was in this party. He says the woman was very intelligent, a Czech ENT surgeon, and never asked for help. Yet this man felt obliged to give it; strollers don’t run easily across the furrows of ploughed fields, so there was a lot of heavy lifting. My informant says this extra toil exhausted him and he gave it up definitively when the child, released from his prolonged imprisonment in the stroller, went berserk, pulling off the man’s glasses and spitting in his face. But the woman, my informant insists, was full of pearls of wisdom, such as that marriage was too comfortable, and so she’d abandoned hers.
It is encounters, or stories, such as these that really make these long treks enjoyable. And the oddities, such as Bistra in Slovenia, which is a two-building location. It has a hotel and the National Technical Museum in the remnants of a Carthusian monastery suppressed by the Emperor Josef in 1782.
The museum has three categories of exhibits — stuffed animals of the 1950s variety, room after informative room on the forestry and woodworking industries of Slovenia, and 16 of former Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito’s cars.
The world should be making its way to Bistra to view this fleet. Rollers, Packards, Cadillacs, plate-armoured Russian limousines (one a gift from Stalin, two from Khrushchev). Captions tell you when the marshal used each car; it’s never for more than two years.
There can be nothing quite like this backwoods walking to get a feel for the Balkans. In a so-called “adventure camp” in Croatia I meet a woman who tells me of her love for her boxer dog.
They only have a life span of nine years, she says, but hers is past that, and has everything wrong with it, but she refuses to end its life. She puts nappies on it and it sleeps with her, head resting against the pulse in her neck. “We love our dogs,” she says.
And a week into my trek the night’s residence has a register of all who have passed through since the 2015 walk opened. Seventy-four people so far, 38 of them Australians.
Gerard Windsor’s books include Angels Before Me: The Road to Santiago.
Clockwise from top left, forest hiking in Croatia; boats on Lake Bled in Slovenia; All Saints church in Fertoszeplak, Hungary; the Slovenian capital, Ljubljana