Across Europe, vol. 6: The bear goes over the mountain

On the way to Vorderes Umbaltörl

Innsbruck, Austria

1 July 2011

Dear fellow-travelers,

So.  On the 24th of May, if I have the entries straight, I arrived in Ljubljana, Slovenia, not having eaten very much in the preceding three or four days, and tramped up the pigeon-haunted stairs to the Zeppelin Hostel, Couchsurfing having come up completely blank.  At this point, my boots were pretty much toast, with holes and tears and gaps in just about every place you could hope not to find them.  I also discovered, when I tried to turn on my laptop, that instead of the usual log-in window it could offer me only a blank screen with a gloomy question-mark icon in the middle.  My anticipated two-day stay in Ljubljana thus turned into a week in limbo, for which I wound up being more than grateful.  After days of fruitless searching and anxiety on my part, a guide affiliated with the hostel found me a pair of boots that fit better than the ones I was discarding, and a repair center near the airport returned my laptop in full working order, all contents intact, the problem having been a single faulty cable and not the total hard-drive failure I had feared.  In the meantime, I met several extraordinary and wonderful people and got to spend some time in and around Ljubljana, which kept improving on its excellent first impression.  I got to help paint a world map on a wall; to tread a resoundingly hollow wooden floor in the castle casement’s surrealist art gallery; and to wander Metelkova.  I also learned to avoid chestnut trees in the dark.  Happiness.

Leaving Ljubljana on the evening of 31 May, I followed the hills to Bled and then around the shoulder of the murky Julian Alps to the border with Austria.  Every day there was a thunderstorm; somewhere along the way, I wandered into tick country, but I haven’t shown any symptoms of Lyme disease yet, and I hope it continues that way.  I’m also enjoying this new life without border police; crossing into Austria there was only a ceremonial tank by the roadside, pointed menacingly into Austrian territory somewhat against the grain of history, with passing drivers clambering on the turret to get their pictures taken.  Motorcycles everywhere.

On reaching Villach I took a brief vacation by train and bus to see Vienna, Prague, and Berlin.  Vienna was something of a Richard Linklater pilgrimage, and in this regard it was a total null; but I did circle beneath my first Gothic cathedral, amass an impressive collection of topo maps to see me from Villach to Innsbruck, and spend a while watching local climbers scale the massive overhanging wall of the municipal aquarium.  The palace area with its museums was largely cordoned off for a Central Asian economic summit, so a faint but authentic glimmer of the imperial past lingered on in the reflections from the policemen’s sunglasses and automatic weaponry.  I got the impression that Vienna in practice is a burgeoning and rather anonymous world city, loosely centered on a parti-colored pastel core where American and Chinese tourists chase after Mozart, Schiele, the Secession, and expensive crystalware – Freud, not so much.  Prague had a much stronger flavor.  The old central city is almost entirely devoid of Czechs, being crowded to the brim with plump tourists eating ice cream and wearing Kafka-patterned t-shirts reading “I ♥ Prague” or “Prague is for Lovers,” but the architectural mayhem is wonderful, and the parks overlooking the river have character to spare.  I also spent a good six hours in the modern art museum, which greets visitors with a sign saying something like this – “Owing to the chaos and repression of the communist era, when the 1990s came around, we weren’t sure if we could put a cohesive exhibition of modern art together at all.  Fortunately, thanks to tremendous generosity, support, and dedication, we were able to assemble the rather idiosyncratic collection we present to you now.  It’s not exactly your standard major-art-museum fare, but we hope you like it.”  It’s brilliant.  I don’t think I’ll ever find another set of rooms where Picasso, Braque, de Chirico, Miró & Co. are mingled interchangeably with motorcycles, domestic wooden furniture, interwar theatrical design miniatures, heavy machine guns, weird flickering light-machines, and toy model airplanes.  The numerous Czech artists on display, hardly any of whom I had heard of before, held their own quite gracefully amidst the fray.  I was less lucky in Berlin, where I found the hostels already swamped and didn’t even manage to spend two days in town.  The general lack of geography was peculiar – I’m not used to navigating by street names and U-bahn stops alone – and the organization around the Unter den Linden axis was also strikingly different from the layout of the other major cities I’ve seen in Europe so far, all of which have been great-grandparents to Berlin’s teenager.  I got a glimpse of the electric Berlin I think people talk about on Oranienburger Strasse, and I found the open-air displays at the remains of the Wall and at the site of the former Gestapo headquarters interesting both for what they said and for what they didn’t say; but I didn’t see the Ishtar Gate, I didn’t manage to instantaneously ingratiate myself with any underground scene, and when I dashed to the Hauptbahnhof gallery and found it devoted to a Land Art retrospective, the colossal irony embodied in all that wretched Richard Long and Hamish Fulton made me physically nauseous, and I had to leave.

So: back to Villach, and back to walking.  As if to celebrate my return from my urban vacation, at this point things went reasonably insane.  The mountains along the Austrian-Italian border are strenuous enough in good weather; in heavy cold rain and wind and cloud, even Teddy Roosevelt might like them.  Between Villach and Innsbruck, I think I had only two days on the move that didn’t involve between 1,200 and 2,100 meters either straight up or straight down – or, more typically, both – often on friable, thinly-layered, steeply-tilted, slippery-when-wet metamorphic rock; or over snow; and my pack was at its heaviest yet – at what various people along the way estimated to be 40 to 50 pounds, or about 25 kilograms.  In the course of this Tyrolean idyll, I racked up my first injuries of the walk so far.  First my three-week-old boots reduced each of my feet to a swollen bloody mess, so that a doctor staying at a hut where I stopped to rest for a day blinked and said she’d never seen anything quite like them.  Then, while running pell-mell down a boulder-strewn valley to escape an equally determined herd of cows – because yes, Austrian mountain cows do chase people, and they’re appallingly fleet-footed – I lost my balance and landed full on my left knee, which has since shown a tendency to get stiffer than Ötzi whenever I stop moving.  To round things off, I decorated my hands with a few abrasions and small chips of rock in a fall down the hard snow on the east side of the Vorderes Umbaltörl pass into Italy.  In better news, I’ve since settled on a way of tying my boots that doesn’t cripple me; I’m giving my knee a few days of rest here in Innsbruck; and the scrapes on my hands have veered away from infection after all.  Knock on wood.

Other issues – the tent I’ve been using now inevitably fills with water when it rains, and the rain is getting pretty inevitable too.  Unfortunately, Innsbruck is surprisingly thin on outdoor equipment stores, and those it does have are surprisingly thin on decent lightweight tents, the summer sales already having come and gone.  I couldn’t find anything today that was worth trying instead of the leaky assemblage I’ve got; and until I can, I’m just going to have to deal.  Then there’s the question of where I go next on my way toward Freiburg.  One option is what I’m thinking of as the Swiss-Bliss-Blitz.  This would take me southwestward up and down a bushel of mountains to the Bernese Oberland, whereupon I would turn north toward the Black Forest; the southwestward leg would probably take at least three weeks, and would probably make the last three weeks look like a piece of cake, but the scenery (if visible) would be mind-boggling.  The question is how to careen through the Swiss Alps without 1) further damaging my knee; 2) overstaying my 90-day limit in the Schengen Area, which requires me to exit France by a specific day in August that I’ll have to work out by digging through my journal; 3) paying hundreds of dollars for maps; 4) freezing in an attempt to avoid paying for shelter; or 5) pauperizing myself in Swiss grocery stores.  Option number two would have me head as directly to Germany as possible, and then go west to Freiburg from there.  Less massive, but also much more easily manageable on every count.  The first step in either case would be to get out of Innsbruck, so I’m planning to head for Garmisch-Partenkirchen, from which either option will still be possible, and then Bodensee/Lake Constance.

I would keep up with the tally of how far I’ve come, but at this point, I don’t really know.  A long way, getting longer.

The place I’m holed up in at the moment rents its wireless signal by the minute, so I’m probably not going to be basking in the sun on Skype while in Innsbruck after all.  If the weather doesn’t lighten up a little – snow, rain, and furious wind today – I won’t be basking in the sun in Innsbruck, either; and this soaking tent will have to dry indoors.  Mostly, once the logistical issues are sorted out, it looks like I’ll be sewing, reading Herodotus, editing pictures of fog and other airborne water, and listening to Welsh punk rock while I watch the river hurry past.  A party animal.  I will check email again, though, before I head back to the hills.

Much love, best of luck,

Owen

Next: Across Europe vol. 7: Je la terre dévore

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