Off the beaten path


When I was walking, especially when I was exerting myself by climbing a hill, breathing became a more pronounced force that was easier to concentrate on than my moderate breathing. Each breath was almost vocal; it almost touched the invisible. As I walked, eventually I became my breathing, and things like worrying, wallowing in anger, and feeling ill will toward others simply fell away.
John Francis, The Ragged Edge of Silence

The Zobar mountains and St Michael’s

I’m often amazed at how I can get it into my head that I’m going to walk somewhere. Whoever’s with me will whinge and complain. But they’ll follow regardless. Perhaps, at first, I’ll feel bad, but by the end I’ll be glad to have dragged them out.

On the Greek island of Kos, I persuaded DeepThought that we ought to get up early, watch the end of June sunrise, and take a walk to the nearby monastery. This was all because the previous day I’d overheard a waitress saying it was unwalkable.

In the hills above the village in which I lived last spring, just north of Barcelona, I convinced a young American man that the rocks that I was scrambling down were a path. All because I’d seen a glimpse of some sort of tower. He seemed less convinced when I fell over and splattered the mountain with my blood, but once I’d disappeared further along he plucked up the courage to follow. He reminded me of this last night when he messaged me for a catch up: I told him I was going on a walking holiday and he asked what a walking holiday was.

In Slovakia, the object of my attention was a small chapel which went by the Slovakian equivalent of St. Michael’s. The afternoon was warm, and my companion was my little sister. Midget has been dragged more places by me than most, yet, somehow, she still agreed that walking up into the forests on the Zobar mountains was doable.

Once we’d been walking sometime she began voicing doubts. Such doubts I always ignore.

But eventually we arrived. Preparations had begun for a bonfire. Children ran around playing games. Fathers, uncles and older brothers, chased them around, while the women gossiped and sunned their legs.

We skipped the mountain on the return journey. Instead we walked through the village, which at half two in the afternoon was quiet and sleepy. The houses were small in stature, but all were detached with gardens. I was enraptured by their stunning displays of vegetables and flowers.

Where have your wanderings taken you?

[Rapunzel informs me that Americans don’t walk, they hike.]

Nitra: Picking a city at random for an adventure


The uncertainty surrounding foreign train journeys inspires me to pray.

There’s always a moment, when I’m standing on the edge of a platform, tickets clutched in my hand, doubting that the train I think is arriving is the same train that is identified on my ticket. I’m not religious, but prayer, or meditation, is a more helpful exercise than panic. Plus, when travelling with Midget I can’t afford to appear vexed. She’s trusting me to have everything completely in control.

In Naples (2016), with DeepThought, I forgot to pray, double check or cross reference. So things went wrong, and then wrong again. But, apart from with the Circumvesuviana, I’ve been incredibly lucky.

The train station in Bratislava had wi-fi, which I used combined with the departure board to make a reasonable platform guess. However, the ticket was one slip of paper for both of us, inviting more doubt that remained until it was wordlessly accepted by the inspector. It included a QR (Quick Response) code which struck me as fancy for a train line where you had to leap from the train into the gravel.

We passed through stunning fields of dying sunflowers. The decaying of happiness. And arrived at Surany, where all but one of the many train lines appeared abandoned to weeds and oxygen. The station’s veranda and single clock reminded me of a western.

Nitra, a destination chosen for its larger size and pronounceable name. We could hardly miss our train for it was the only train. Compared to the clanking train from Bratislava to Surany, with its Hogwarts style carriage compartments, it was a modern build with steps down to the gravel. Yet, on our arrival we realised that the train station resembled something more like the one in our village than one belonging to a city.

Still, the city of Nitra enchanted.

Not with impressive architecture. Nor with any fancy food – although my pasta bake with pizza dough crust was something special. Instead it struck me as a place you’d want to raise children. Maybe it’s a cultural thing. By peeling ourselves away from the tourism of Bratislava, we had stepped out of the English-speaking world. As now we weren’t being sold an idea of Slovakia, we were in Slovakia.

I felt it proved that something was missing from home. The overwhelming feeling of Nitra was one of family. Everywhere we went there were adults and children together, and a startling absence of screen staring. Midget agreed, and our conversations kept returning to this sensation of community that we couldn’t quite describe. A short walk from where we rented a room was a large park. Here, adults and children cycled and swept along on their rollerblades. Little cafés stood within a mass of playgrounds. There were deer, goats, a sheep, a cow and a donkey. Children took pony rides and built castles in the sandpits. The adults chatted and laughed.

A tiny child parked his pedal-less bike in the bike rack beside the café where we were sitting drinking kofola. He just got on with it, without any doubt that his bike and the other bikes all belonged together.

Bratislava: Perhaps it’s time for another coffee


Travelling with Midget involves talking about art galleries, museums and great places of historical merit… and going out for coffee.


Cappuccino for me, and a black coffee and a panini for Midget while Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe smile down from the walls. The waitress, an Ellie Goulding fan, leans across the counter, going through YouTube, creating a playlist to accompany her shift. Obviously her laptop’s more interesting than yet more boring tourists. I still try to thank her for our breakfast. But unfortunately, although I’m saying what I think is the Slovakian for thank you – dakujem – she has no idea what I’m trying to say. Confusion occurs. Understandably Midget is embarrassed. We haven’t yet travelled long enough for her to get used to my atrocious attempts at languages.


Later, we splash out on two iced coffees and, feeling daring, I go one step further and delight in a savoury cupcake with poppy seeds.

At a nearby table, a young woman leans forward. There’s such an absence of self doubt in her person that I can’t help but be intrigued.  She has a philosophy on work and her companion is going to calmly listen to and agree with what she has to say. I am certain he is incapable of any other option. While they speak in English, neither of them sound like they speak it as a first language. This makes for an even more entertaining back and forth. Bless the companion, he tries. However, the woman insists that her colleagues aren’t committed enough. We hear how they don’t demonstrate the right attitude. Furthermore, these incompetent and lazy dancers are affecting her attitude, and this is intolerable. She needs to do something about the dismal state of things and with some urgency. There must be action.

What she wants to do is create something worthwhile, something new. She wants to experiment. She recognises that having such a freedom in life is difficult, a luxury perhaps. But she wants to dedicate her soul to dance. For this she requires collaborators who love dance like she does.

Her passion delights me. People who fight to do more emit such a wondrous energy.

We walk past graffiti and I wonder why it took me so long to travel again.


Stylised newspaper decorates the walls of the third establishment we venture to. The lyric-less music bounces. A stand for a sewing machine makes a quirky café table; the pedal is by my feet. We taste each other’s drinks – a caramelised ginger lemonade for me and raspberry lemonade for Midget – and talk.  These fancy lemonades deserve much attention.

Most of all though, for me, the reason for being like this, ambling through coffee and tea, is that it provides a lovely sense of space. It’s a chance for Midget and I to simply be in each other’s company. While the Midget reads her guide to Europe, I take out my diary. And I’m smiling.

Based on my diary from Bratislava, August 2014.