Yes. Portugal. I spent last week on a job with a film production company driving and sorting stuff behind the scenes. It’s something I used to do a few times a year, but generally in and around Manchester.
This time it was on the Algarve.
The beaches are beautiful.
The temperature was about perfect, cool mornings and evenings, reaching perhaps 25 in the afternoon.
But won’t be sad if I don’t go back.
All character has been erased to create a two mile deep sprawl of holiday villas and hotels that stretched right across the 80 or so miles of coast we were working on.
Seeing the Brits abroad was a shock too. It’s not a phenomenon we come across in the van that often.
That said the job was exhausting fun and I’ll do another given the chance. Film is an interesting industry where smiles and positivity abound, despite the chaos that you don’t see. The answer is always “Yes”, and it’s up to you to work out how. It’s great to see young folk giving their all, often for 15 hours a day without complaint.
This time we were working with two young children who were truly great to be with, polite, hard working with an appropriate degree of humility.
I left Minty at her campsite outside of Vienna at Klosterneuburg where she hoped to spend the week visiting the capital and swimming in the Danube.
That didn’t quite work out as the central European temperatures soared to the mid 30s each day and so she was unable to leave Polly in the van.
Fortunately the campsite was excellent with good facilities.
They pack people in rather too tightly for my liking, but we’d nabbed an unofficial pitch that gave Minty a front and back garden, and privacy too.
Sarah and Angelina took Polly to their heart, keeping her company and helping on walks too. I’m sure their dad will be pestered for many weeks to get a dog now.
Polly – character.
When there are no other dogs around Polly is close to the perfect pet.
She’s bright (for a dog), placid, not needy, and she was able to walk a good distance before her accident.
Her easy going nature is responsible for many friends, and even Cornish Way guests, now having dogs. Not all are as easy to live with as Polly, and not every relationship has worked out well.
It’s a hellofa commitment, but get it right and it’s worth the effort – and I write that as I’m about to take her to the vet for an expensive and complicated operation. I’m worried sick, but I love her too much not to see it through.
A short drive after the challenging motorway around Vienna and we’re in Slovakia.
The capital, Bratislava, is close to Vienna, yet the difference is huge.
It’s now an attractive, wealthy town, and the homogenisation of global brands is as complete here as anywhere, but there’s no escaping the Soviet era tower blocks that surround the city. That and the crazy height of the advertising hoardings that were probably allowed just after ’89 when no one there could believe the money a western brand was prepared to spend to shout its message the loudest.
We’re not touching Bratislava today although we enjoyed it on our ’97 tour. Instead we continue a short distance to Nitra and pull into an excellent parking space by its sports ground and park.
Nitra’s monastery, cathedral and castle complex tower above the otherwise flat town on a large rocky outcrop.
They’re certainly the most interesting buildings in town.
Elsewhere it’s a pleasant place with a good atmosphere, not yet sprinkled with the fairy dust (and Euro-millions) that has brightened some of its neighbours.
On the street there are many dessert and ice cream restaurants where cliental are easily identified by their girth and waddle.
Those who haven’t ballooned by age 25 are mostly elegant in the extreme. Attractive men and women glide in beautiful clothes, or exercise in perfect Nike sports fashion.
At the castle restaurant we ate our best meal of this trip so far on a terrace overlooking gardens and distant hills. While the Slovak mainstay seems to be the kebab house, the places that serve good food serve very good food indeed.
I’m writing right now as a diversionary tactic to help stop me worrying about the dog’s operation. Her vet, Pavol, has asked us to bring her to a different town so that he can be assisted by his consultant colleague. He intends to fit a knee implant that Noel Fitzpatrick would be proud of. I’ve seen it. It’s terrifying.
She’ll be out of action for a slow recovery, but then over time we should get our old Polly back, fit and ready to take on the world.
AirBnB. An app based world.
AirBnB is both genius and a curse.
It helped us establish our St Just self-catering studio, and has brought cheaper travel, and extra income, to enterprising folk around the world.
It has also helped dramatically skew the occupancy profile of many cities to the extent that mayors in major European cities have completely banned it from their domains.
When app based services work they can be revolutionary, and most work for 99% of transactions.
When they go wrong you can expect to bang your head on lots of walls in an effort to sort things out.
When the vet moved the location for Polly’s op it meant we couldn’t get to our AirBnB booked accommodation until two days after our planned arrival day.
Even though our host would have had the same amount of money (a handsome £660), for less days accommodation, she got annoyed, threw her toys out and cancelled the booking – on the day we were due to arrive!
The issue here is hospitality being offered by people who have no hospitality experience. It often works well, but the flexibility that’s trained into every hotelier is a novel concept to someone who’s out to make a quick buck.
I’ve knocked the story off here in a few words. I can’t convey the angst of the 20 hours it took to convince AirBnB to refund the prepaid amount.
What made us smile was the fact that we used to juggle so many huge issues for our corporate employers all the time. We might have had ten such challenges on our desk at any one time. Now we’re so grateful that they only come along now and then.
Right. Time to stop the delay tactics and take Polly to her vet.
Sick to the stomach I walk into the vets, all the worries having built to a head that left my legs shaking and my heart a flutter.
When Pavol, her vet, walked out to greet me his calming effect was palpable.
His might have been the first genuine smile we encountered in Slovakia. There’s only a limited number of smiles allowed here and they don’t give them lightly.
Dr Mlaka, Pavol’s friend and colleague, x-rayed and examined Polly under anaesthetic.
He called us in to say that her condition is not bad enough to warrant the operation. He said that she has arthritis brought on by the tendon issue, and that will get worse, but she’ll be OK as hobbly Polly.
Don’t let her play, don’t let her run, avoid mixing with other dogs that’ll get her excited.
How do I explain our mixed emotions?
Minty felt a flood of relief. The risk had been removed. The difficult and potentially dangerous rehabilitation would no longer be necessary. Our travel could continue much as it has been.
And I felt that I’d lost my mate all over again.
For eight months I’ve both dreaded this operation, but looked forward to its outcome. I knew her recovery would be slow, but I believed that in the end Polly and I would walk for miles again.
Now that won’t happen. She’ll only have short strolls.
She doesn’t care. She’s a contented soul.
Rolling on. Cicmany.
The show must go on.
The night we were most dreading with post-op Polly was instead a simple and quiet one in Cicmany. The pretty village is between three high hills that include downhill ski slopes, but it’s better known for its painted houses.
The large log built houses have been painted with geometric designs for a hundred and fifty years and are now recognised for their cultural value.
Their vegetable patches were impressive too, each behind tennis court fencing to hold back the voracious rabbits.
The grasses teem with life.
In the hills I walked for a few sweaty miles in the afternoon thunder, wading through grasses that were at times chest high. My path was the faintest of indents made by a tractor that had passed through months before.
Hundreds of flowers bring close up colour. Where the grass had been cut micro strawberries glowed bright. Thousands of beasties bring action to the scene.
Watching each footstep, aware of the snake risk, I saw every imaginable small creature.
Ground spiders created complicated funnel webs to ensnare the myriad flies. Weevils in green coats raced weevils in red coats. Moths and butterflies seem bleached by the sun in their washed out colours. Lizards left it as late as they dared before scurrying deeper into shelter. Bees in miniature, bees massive, wasps thin as air, all beat the soundtrack. Flies in clouds like flies are never seen today in England buzzed to move the heavy air. Birds feasted on them all.
Let the grasses grow. Let the wildlife thrive.
After Polly had been to the vet for her first hyaluronic acid injection we drove familiar ground to Levoca, then on to Levocska Dolina, its ski resort 5 miles up the road.
After the AirBnB debacle we switched to Booking.com and found a sweet chalet where we intended to spend Polly’s convalescence. Of course her rest period isn’t necessary now, but it’ll be good to be still for a few days, and catch up on washing.
Next week Manchester friends Paul and Heather Phaus will join us too.
Soviet sectioning of the Slovakian Smile.
The Soviet days were hard.
Hard beyond anything we can contemplate.
Travel to the west was impossible.
Travel even within the bloc was hard.
The type of rationing that our grandparents remember from wartime continued until the late 1980s while western countries wallowed in ever increasing excess.
That Soviet rationing included their smile.
Slovakians were allowed just 18 smiles each year.
The Soviets knew that the feel good neuropeptides that a smile releases incite revolution.
A smile makes the smiler feel good, and the recipient too, and that wasn’t good when there was nothing to be happy about.
With smiling on tight rations the people soon learned not to break into one at all.
Better no smiles in a year than risk forgetting one and suffering the consequences of the 19thgrin.
Although all that restriction ended close to 30 years ago the habit of breaking into a smile has been slow to return.
Of course this is utter bunkum, but my little folly is well founded.
We’re accustomed to being stared at in foreign parts. It reminds you what being a stranger means and the unavoidable fact that in rarely visited parts we are strangers indeed. But it’s still hard to accept when we break out our most charming grins and we’re met by a blank, even hostile stare. It’s not just people in the street, it might be the person you’re ordering from in a restaurant, whose pay packet depends on you.
Dear Slovakia. I wish you the gift of smiles. We’re going to try doubly hard to help them grin in the next couple of weeks. It could be a challenge.