Mir­a­cles on the peace walk

Fol­low a trail along the old Iron Cur­tain in cen­tral Europe

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - GER­ARD WIND­SOR

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.

• peace­walk.eu

Clock­wise from top left, for­est hik­ing in Croa­tia; boats on Lake Bled in Slove­nia; All Saints church in Fer­toszeplak, Hun­gary; the Slove­nian cap­i­tal, Ljubl­jana

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