At the Western Edge of Europe (2): The Aran Islands

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At the top of the photograph, Inishoirr (also often spelled Inisheer), the nearest and smallest of the Aran Islands, as we saw it from a high point on the Irish mainland…

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…and our first glimpse of the island’s austere skyline as we came ashore from the ferry.

It beats me how the Aran Islands can be such a huge tourist attraction. They lie like three low, grey-green mounds in the sea, shorn clean of trees by the Atlantic’s incessant gales. A few grim ruins decorate the crests of the islands. There are one or two pubs plus some small shops. And that’s about it… at least for all except specialist historians, archaeologists and anthropologists. The big attraction of the islands – their wind-swept isolation – has disappeared under a tsunami of tourists, at least in summer. I blame the wildly popular, satirical sitcom Father Ted. Its kick-arse Catholic mayhem happens on a fictional island in the Bay of Galway. We know where that “fictional” island is… the opening credits were filmed on the Aran Islands (type “Father Ted” into YouTube’s search box.)

Our walking itinerary (see Macs Adventure: https://www.macsadventure.com/holiday-2183/best-of-the-burren-way ) mandated an eight-kilometre circuit through part of the biggest island, Inishmore. On the morning of July 23rd we walked from our comfortable B&B accommodation in Doolin to Doolin Pier one kilometre away along a narrow road already choking on tourist buses. We had tickets for a ferry ride to the islands, but chaos was in charge at the pier and I couldn’t identify our boat. No signs, no announcements, just big groups of people disintegrating, regrouping and disintegrating again. I saw an official-looking lady in a hi-viz red jacket pointing left and right.

“Good morning,” I said politely. “How are you this morning?”

“Sure I’m livin’ the dream,” she said, laying on the irony like a thick blob of cream on an Irish scone.

I flashed my ticket and raised my eyebrows.

“Your boat’s the Galway Girl. There she is, down there at the jetty.”

And indeed the Galway Girl was heaving and rocking and making ominous splintering noises against the jetty. Its gangway sloped down to the concrete of the jetty where it slid out and back as the boat rocked on the heaving sea. A grizzled old salt – complete with woolen beanie and thick beard – straight out of a winter advertisement for cough drops, was helping passengers get a foothold on the constantly moving bottom steps of the gangway.

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The Galway Girl, the ferry that took us from the mainland to Inishoirr. (Photo: Shipspotting)

It was a rough forty-minute crossing to Inishoirr, the nearest and smallest of the three islands. White-capped waves banged against the hull as the boat sawed through them. They wrenched and yanked at the boat, heaving it up and slamming it down into the rock-hard water. As we crept up to the jetty on Inishoirr Emmy and I were feeling queasy.

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The scattered houses of the main settlement on Inishoirr.

“Passengers for Inishmore, please transfer to the neighbouring ferry,” said the PA announcement. The onward trip would take another hour, to be followed by an eight-kilometre walk on Inishmore and one-and-a-half hours back to the mainland on rough seas.

Well… to be honest, this didn’t appeal, so we got off and headed up a concrete ramp into the sole small village on Inishoirr. A hundred or more people had the same idea. They surged into ranks of horse-drawn traps, buggies and bicycles. With genteel brutality a hand-to-hand battle for customers broke out.

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Pony traps are a popular way for visitors to see the island, and a good source of income for islanders during the summer tourist season. (Photo: Nadia Prigoga-Lee, Flickr)

We decided to walk around the scattered houses of the village. At the edge of the village (it wasn’t far) we came across the half-exhumed ruins of a 10th-century church, the burial place of Saint Kevin, the island’s patron saint. Near it stood the island’s modern church, a simple, white, far-from-historic building. For us, it was a welcome capsule of quiet a world away from the confusion of bikes, horses, buggies and people around the jetty. All its signs and devotional materials were in Irish. In several corners, devotional candles burned with subdued brilliance, seeming to symbolise the modest but steady faith of the islanders.

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Inishoirr’s modest Catholic church.

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The quiet, (almost) tourist-free, interior of the church.

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Emmy lights a candle (25 cents each) but refuses to say who, or what, the candle is for.

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The July 2019 edition of the Aran parish newsletter. The Aran Islands are part of the Gaeltacht, a string of Gaelic-speaking communities located mostly in isolated parts of the west coast.

Refreshed, we walked on to a modest cottage in a narrow lane. One half was a tiny café, just four tables jammed one against the other. We inserted ourselves into chairs under a table and ordered scones and tea from the blackboard menu.

“Sorry, we only have one scone left. Plus a strawberry cheesecake pie.”

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The tiny cafe and crafts shop where we had a scone and a cheesecake pie for lunch (behind the window on the left). I bought a handmade woolen sweater in the small shop on the right. The sign in Irish reads “The Craft Shop”.

That was our lunch. We ate slowly, enjoying the exotic resonance of the Irish language as the young waitress and waiter struggled to prepare a pot of tea and locate some butter and jam to serve with the scone. They told us, with great pride, that Irish was their everyday language, as it was for most of the fewer than 2,000 permanent inhabitants of the Aran Islands. In the neighbouring room, an array of Aran knitwear was on sale. Sweaters, cardigans, scarves, beanies, throw-rugs all beautifully handmade from soft, thick, locally spun tweed wool. It was a warm day, but I couldn’t resist buying a winter sweater. (I’m wearing it right now as I type these notes, snug and well-insulated in the frigid ambience of Canberra’s Aran-like winter.)

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My beautiful, locally hand-knitted sweater with a hand-written label.

Our visit to the Aran Islands lasted just four hours, but it was long enough for us to peep for an instant behind the billboard of tourist hype that hangs over the islands and see a unique way of life centred on the Catholic church, the Irish language, and flourishing home craft industries.

At the Western Edge of Europe (1): The Cliffs of Moher

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Between Shannon Airport and the village of Liscannor, a roadside sign points to a trace of my Irish ancestry in the village of Quin.

It was my first visit to Ireland. Emmy and I went by taxi from Shannon Airport to the township Liscannor on the Atlantic coast about one hour away. We passed roadside signs pointing to the village of Quin. A strange feeling came over me. It wasn’t deja vue exactly, but rather a vague feeling of familiarity. Perhaps this is where my ancestors came from. I don’t know much about them except that they fled Ireland around 1870, initially settling in the lowlands of Scotland, then migrating to Canada and later to New Zealand where I was born. Quinn – with its variants Quin, O’Quinn, O’Coinn, Cuain, Cuinche and others – is a common Irish name found right across the island. It is especially common in County Clare where we saw it on several signs as we walked the Burren Way up the west coast. Unexpectedly, I found myself walking on what might have been my family’s ancient home ground.

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Quin Abbey in County Clare. This tumbledown ruin and me… we have a lot in common. (Google Earth image)

On the morning of July 22nd, with a blustery wind slapping at us from the chopped-up waters of the Atlantic Ocean, we shouldered our backpacks and headed out of Liscannor towards the southern end of the famous Cliffs of Moher. We were on a track called The Burren Way. Our destination for the day was the hamlet of Doolin, about twenty kilometres to the north. We walked into green pasturelands, criss-crossed by rough stone walls, that sloped down to a grey sea. Isolated white cottages crouched in the grass with beige-coated cows dotted around them. There were no trees, the roads were empty, and the homesteads too seemed deserted. We walked alone.

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The famous, windswept Cliffs of Moher.

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Emmy braces herself against the Atlantic wind with O’Brien’s Tower in the background.

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Rough slate walls helped protect us at the edge of the cliff.

Our walking poles came out early. We levered our way up a long, gravelly asphalt road towards a ruined stone tower – O’Brien’s Tower – standing high above the sea. From there, looking north we saw a series of steep dark headlands diving almost vertically into the sea. The path narrowed and veered towards the edge of the cliff. Far below, the white breakers of the Atlantic boiled against the rocky teeth of the cliff base. In some places big slabs of slate had been placed like a low wall between the path and the edge of the cliff. We had to wobble over at least half-a-dozen stone stiles.

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Stone stiles… my technique was to sprint up to the stile, leap high into the air, and soar over it in one youthful bound (as illustrated in this photo).

We met a few walkers coming south, and as we crept north more and more of them appeared. About twelve kilometres from our start-point in Liscannor – a bit over halfway through our walk to Doolin – the crowds thickened. Again and again we had to press ourselves against the side of the path to let them past. The path widened to accommodate a horde of day-trippers: howling toddlers in pushchairs, fat Americans wheezing and dipping into bags of potato crisps, teenagers daring one another to take selfies at the cliff’s edge, clusters of Spanish tourists talking among themselves earnestly, intently, rapidly and non-stop as they walked, indifferent to the natural spectacle around them.

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Teenage day-trippers dare one another on the cliff’s edge.

Then, in the distance, we saw where they were coming from: the Cliffs of Moher Visitor Centre (called, I’m sorry to report, “The Visitor Experience”). To keep it unobtrusive, the Irish authorities have hidden it under the flanks of a grassy hill. But the parking area cannot be hidden. Its hundreds of cars and buses glisten like a bright, ugly, constantly mutating melanoma on the green skin of the landscape.

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Like a melanoma on the skin of the landscape: the jam-packed parking area at the Cliffs of Moher Visitor Centre. Note the crowds of day-trippers walking the edge of the cliff.

The Cliffs of Moher are one of Ireland’s most popular tourist attractions. They bring in a clutter of mobile phones, baseball caps, over-sized sunglasses, and headphones whispering to the outside world the deafening thumps of music that fill the heads of their users. The cliffs are an interesting natural phenomenon, even spectacular in places, but most visitors scan them quickly, and with a curious indifference, before recording some photos and heading back to the Visitor Centre. The cliffs are a “celebrity location”, famous, above all, for being famous. You go there in order to say “I have been there.”

Travel, they say, broadens the mind. But modern mass tourism seems to do the opposite. It actually narrows the mind. It reduces, and tries to monopolise, options, flexibility and contact with local people. Travellers are whisked from site to site in buses or cars, given pre-digested “information” about each site, allowed photo-ops, then delivered to gift shops. This kind of travel is just another form of consumerism… you collect destinations and take them home in your mobile phone like selfies with sports stars and the autographs of media personalities.

What’s worse, because of tourism’s indifference to the celebrity locations it promotes, it ruthlessly exploits, and ultimately destroys, them. Mass tourism means getting close to the fame of a place – however fleetingly – without bothering yourself with the origins or meaning or authenticity of that fame. Barcelona, Venice, Amsterdam, Jerusalem’s Old City, the Eiffel Tower, the Tower of London, the Colosseum, the Parthenon, the Louvre – hundreds more – have become unbearable ant-hills of people, offering little more than glimpses of history, or greatness, or beauty amid a relentless crush of people, and a litter of souvenir shops and fast food outlets. Tragically, this is what many tourists expect, even what they want.

If you like hiking – long distance walking – it is probably because you enjoy solitude. How can the travel industry sell solitude to a mass market? It can’t, of course, except by redefining solitude to mean lots of people, but fewer than at the Cliffs of Moher. So real solitude is deleted from the mind-broadening options offered by the travel industry, even as simultaneously they broadcast (or imply) the slogan “travel broadens the mind”.

But back to the Burren Way. At the end of a long day’s walking – a bit stressed by the necessity to walk some segments along narrow roads between thick blackberry hedges, mixing it with long lines of cars and tourist buses that filled the whole width of the road – we trudged into the tiny hamlet of Doolin, famous for the traditional Irish music of its pubs. And yes, that night, as we tucked into a rack of lamb in O’Connors Pub, we listened to a harp and bauzouki duo in one corner of the dining room playing a selection of gentle traditional melodies. My stress and annoyance at the Cliffs of Moher’s “visitor experience” melted away. The mashed potatoes tasted especially good with a pinch of salt and a knob of rich Irish butter on them.

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The tiny hamlet of Doolin, justly famous for the traditional Irish music played in its pubs. Our B&B accommodation was just past the left end of this strip of shops and pubs.

The Jesus Trail, Day 3: Kibbutz Lavi to Moshav Arbel

We stepped from the friendly ambience of the Kibbutz Lavi Hotel into the mild warmth of a clear Thursday morning. Our path took us across the central installations of the kibbutz: chicken runs, cow sheds, a petrol station, yards full of agricultural machinery, stables, workshops, offices, staff houses…

We walked along a well-defined path into neat fields, curving towards the low prominence of the Horns of Hattin. The big hill has a couple of lumps in it like protrusions growing on the head of a young bull. Everywhere in Israel visitors are either ogling history or trampling over it. Here you can do both. In 1187 Crusader forces clashed with the Muslim army of Saladin in the open country under the Horns of Hattin, right where we were walking. Saladin routed the Crusaders, putting an end to European Christian power in the Levant until Napoleon turned up at the end of the 1700s.

We reached a T-junction in the path, with an innocently inviting turn to the left and an equally inviting wriggle of pathway to the right. Both options were marked with trail blazes, so we consulted our map. The path to the left looked shorter. No-brainer… we turned left.

A gently rising staircase took us upwards and around the contours of the hill. A vast panorama opened up beneath us: the distant white roofs of factories and glasshouses glinting in the sun, shimmering villages and townships, green and yellow fields, a busy highway with insect-like cars creeping along it. We gulped big breaths of clean air and stopped for a selfie or two. How good it was to walk free and strong with the world spread out below us.

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I pose on the heights between Lavi and Arbel, innocently (or arrogantly?) unaware that our old age is about to be tested on surfaces rougher than we’ve ever walked on before.

Hmmm… within an hour that sentimental froth had been whipped away from us. The path turned nasty. REALLY nasty. A trap snapped shut… there was no turning back. For the next four hours we had to struggle forward over the most difficult walking terrain we have ever encountered in the ten years of our walking careers. It wasn’t a long distance, but it was slow going and harrowing while it lasted.

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Here is our “path”. Yes, it is an “official” pathway. Note the trail marker on a rock bottom left.

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Emmy comes up a slope, balancing precariously on the rocky surface.

The track ascended and descended steeply, sometimes precipitously. Over considerable distances (at least it felt “considerable” to us) the surface was boulders and rocks. Not a “path” at all. Yet it was the path, marked at regular intervals with official trail markers. We couldn’t leap from boulder to boulder as young walkers might have done, or mountain goats. In places we had to wobble forward, inch by tiny inch, testing every step with our poles, maneuvering among the crevices, crawling, or sliding on our bums in places. Being old, we were fearful of a fall or a sprain. At one point I slipped on to my back between two rocks. I couldn’t fold my legs under me, or find support for my arms on the smooth surface of the stones. Emmy couldn’t get close enough to help. It took me five minutes to get upright. The combination of old age and boulders is not a good one.

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Maybe over that crest the path will smooth out and it will be easy going again. Totally alone, we had no help but hope.

When we emerged from the grass and stones above the village of Kfar Zeitim, we were aching, dehydrated and exhausted. In the distance we could see our destination, the hamlet of Moshav Arbel. Behind it, through a gash in the hills, we could also see the burnished steel of Kinneret, the Sea of Galilee.

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Kinneret visible in the distance, and our destination, Moshav Arbel, visible centre-right. We still have around two hours of walking (trudging? plodding? staggering?) ahead of us.

Another hour brought us to a highway leading east towards Arbel. As we drooped along the shoulder of the road a car skidded to a stop beside us.

“Need a lift?”

A miraculous flash of energy teleported us instantaneously into the car where we met Corinne, the young driver. In ten minutes she had whisked us to our accommodation at the Arbel Holiday Homes. We thanked her profusely, but we couldn’t find words to tell her how deep our gratitude really was. Corinne didn’t care. In the spirit of true generosity she simply gave us a cheery wave and drove off.

The proprietors of Arbel Holiday Homes, Ben Konowitz and his wife, greeted us warmly and ushered us to a simple but comfortable cabin. I started to tell Ben of our sufferings. With a glimmer of Jewish humour and the slightest of smiles, he waved my lament away.

“You’re walking the Jesus Trail,” he said gently. “You’re supposed to suffer.”

The Jesus Trail, Day 2: Cana to Kibbutz Lavi

A jostling crowd of pilgrims and tourists jammed the front door of the Cana Wedding Church. (Cana is often mispronounced /kay.na/. It should be /ka.na/.) Emmy and I elbowed our way in and took a seat in the back row of pews. Under its bright red dome the church hosts a spacious nave and a light-filled transept. As we took in the ambience, a church functionary tried to shoo the crush of selfie-snapping visitors out.

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Christian visitors from southern India milling around in the Cana Church courtyard…

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… and inside the church tourists mingle with devout worshippers.

We were about to witness what the Cana Wedding Church is famous for. At the front of the nave, standing in a semi-circle before the altar, stood seven middle-aged American couples. One of the grey-haired ladies was wearing a bridal veil and holding fast to the hand of her slightly stooped, somewhat paunchy husband. They were all there to reconfirm their marriage vows. A Catholic priest appeared and launched into a short service. With sing-song enthusiasm he read from the second chapter of John’s Gospel.

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there, and both Jesus and his disciples were invited to the wedding. When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what does that have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Whatever he says to you, do it.” Now there were six stone water pots set there for the Jewish custom of purification, containing twenty or thirty gallons each. Jesus said to them, “Fill the pots with water.” So they filled them up to the brim. And he said to them, “Draw some out now and take it to the headwaiter.” So they took it to him. When the headwaiter tasted the water which had become wine, and did not know where it came from (but the servants who had drawn the water knew), the headwaiter called the bridegroom and said to him, “Every man serves the good wine first, and when the people have drunk freely, then he serves the poorer wine; but you have kept the good wine until now.

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Middle-aged couples from the United States reconfirm their marriage vows.

The best wine is well-aged wine and is drunk later in life. That was the message of the priest’s brief sermon on marriage, interrupted with giggles as the couples exchanged their renewed vows and wedding rings. The twenty-minute service wound up with a chaste kiss (“…just a very brief kiss!” warned the priest, but he was grinning as he said it.)

In the alley outside, the souvenir shops were doing a brisk trade in (what else?) wine. I sampled some. It was very red and very sweet, like sherry or rich port. I was deep in the narrative and reached for my wallet. Then I remembered, wine = weight. A day of walking lay ahead of us. There are certain trials that no amount of wine, however old and rich, can make smooth. I chose light luggage over a light head.

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Some of the walk to Kibbutz Lavi was tough. Here Emmy picks her way over grey rocks between grey, rock-hard cactus plants.

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The temperature hovered around 25 degrees. It wasn’t uncomfortably hot, but we had to stay well-hydrated

May 8th took us from Cana to the prosperous orthodox Jewish kibbutz at Lavi, a distance of about sixteen kilometres. We would be crossing an unmarked but nevertheless real apartheid boundary between Arab towns of Cana and Tur’an, and the Jewish territory of Lavi. Our route took us over open, empty countryside and through the Beit Keshet Forest. This so-called “forest” was sparse and degraded, struggling to live right beside a military base complete with barbed-wire fences and guard towers. But we felt at home… the forest was populated by large clusters of Australian ghost gums with their messy leaf litter and whiff of eucalyptus perfume. Even… could that be a dingo!? It was in fact a jackal. It darted on to our gravel path, stared at us for a split-second, then vanished. Again, we were completely alone, surrounded by sweet silence and sweet solitude.

Around midday we reached the Golani Junction, a major meeting point of the north-south and east-west highways in northern Israel. The trail took us past a McDonald’s restaurant and into rough farmland. The ground was stony and splotched with rock-hard dry mud well trampled by cattle. Large grey cactus plants leered over us. We reached a barbed wire fence hanging over boulders. This was a crossing point, but it took us a good ten minutes to find a way through the swaying, razor-sharp confusion of wires.

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We had lunch in a roadside Arab restaurant. “We want a light, simple lunch,” I told the waiter. “OK, OK, no problem… very small meal.” And this is what we got. On my plate: chicken schnitzel with sesame seeds, chips and rice. Then clockwise from the left of my plate, savoury rice, gherkins, olives, roast slices of eggplant, hummus, flat bread, fresh salad, and various relishes. Emmy has chicken kebabs on long steel skewers. And after eating as much as we could, we were invited to shift to another table for….

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… explosively strong Turkish style coffee and various sweetmeats.

By mid-afternoon we could see the Kibbutz Lavi Hotel, a substantial grey concrete building atop a high hill across neatly tilled fields. But somehow, the road we were on circled around the hill. It was an hour of plodding, culminating in a steep, hot climb to the kibbutz entry gate, before we reached the haven of the hotel. The welcome was warm and soon we were stretched out on a soft bed in a modestly luxurious room feeling the fatigue ebb away.

We enjoyed a smorgasbord dinner in a large dining hall with scores – perhaps hundreds – of American Jews in tour groups, mixing it with kibbutz staff. The atmosphere was relaxed and convivial, brightened by the excited chatter of children. We felt comfortably at home. A wide range of Jewish styles was on display, from smooth shaven young men sporting crew-cuts and wearing shorts and t-shirts, to figures with corkscrew side-locks wearing black kippa skull caps and creamy prayer shawls under their dark jackets and waistcoats. Many women hid their hair under colourful turban-like headcloths, their modest dresses reaching down to their ankles.

It was Independence Day, which is always the day after Memorial Day. Everywhere there were Israeli flags: on the tables, hanging from the ceiling, decorating the food bars. The atmosphere was mildly exuberant and there was a special range of foods on offer: plentiful, very varied and delicious. Thinking with regret of my decision that morning not to buy a bottle of wine in Cana, I corrected my mistake and bought a mini bottle of red. The Jewish gentleman at the next table lifted his eyes from the mountain of roast meat and eggplant on his plate to point at the bottle and congratulate me on my taste. “Yes, it’s not bad,” I admitted. “Not bad!!??” he bristled. “That’s from the Gamla Winery in the Golan Heights. It’s the best wine in the world!”

I wanted to argue the case for New Zealand Pinot Noir, but my neighbour had headed back to the food bar and was busy heaping a second (or maybe a third?) helping of meat and eggplant on to his plate.

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On the way to Kibbutz Lavi, still managing to look cheerful. Little did we know… (see next post)

The Jesus Trail Day 1: Nazareth to Cana

Nazareth is the starting point of the so-called Jesus Trail, a 65 kilometre, four-day hike down to the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel. Two thousand years ago Nazareth was a tiny village where, supposedly, Yeshua ben Yosef (better known as Jesus) grew up. Today, with a population nearing 80,000, it is Israel’s biggest Arab city. Most people there are Muslims, but about 30% identify as Christians, mostly Catholic.

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“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single selfie.” I’m in the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, bringing Lao Tze’s ancient aphorism into the 21st century. Behind me tourists take pictures of the cave where Mary was told of her divine pregnancy.

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Our accommodation in Nazareth, the basic but very welcoming Villa Nazareth.

Airily throwing aside our burden of years (we’re now both on the wrong side of 75) Emmy and I signed up for the Walk as independent walkers whose baggage would be transferred by Abraham Tours from lodging to lodging along the way (see: https://abrahamtours.com/tours/jesus-trail/ ). The first leg, from Nazareth to Cana, would take us sixteen kilometres into the journey.

We checked in to the basic but squeaky-clean first stop, the Villa Nazareth B&B hotel among the twisting alleyways of Nazareth’s old city centre. We had some preliminary reconnaissance to do. Our guidebook mentioned that the walk out of Nazareth began with a steep flight of 405 steps. On our first evening in town we walked through the ancient stone passageways to the foot of the steps and peered up. One glance and our elderly legs began to tremble. Our knees sent painful signals clambering up our fragile nerve-paths to register a warning… “You’re very old, don’t risk that climb!”

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The exterior of the huge Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth…

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… and inside pilgrims, tourists and devotees of Mary swarm through the spacious, second-floor of the basilica.

Back at the Villa Nazareth I had a word with Razie, the ultra-helpful receptionist: “Could you arrange a taxi to take us to the top of the steps tomorrow morning?” Razie managed to look both surprised and not surprised. “Of course,” he said. “Very sensible.” Then he nailed me with a friendly but stern glare. “You should take a taxi right to the edge of Nazareth,” he said. “Almost every day we have to deal with walkers who get lost in the tangle of streets around the top of the steps. There’s a lot of construction going on up there, the way is not clearly marked. It’s very demoralising to get lost before you’ve even started.”

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Above and below: the narrow streets and alleys of old Nazareth

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I tried to look as if we didn’t really need to by-pass this initial obstacle, but inwardly I snapped up Razie’s advice and immediately ordered the taxi. The following morning, Tuesday May 7th, beyond the edge of Nazareth city, a short walk took us into a sparse, scraggy, rubbish-strewn forest. We were utterly alone. The weather was clear and warm but with a cooling breeze. The feared 30+ temperatures didn’t eventuate. The path was well-marked with frequent white and orange trail markers on trees and rocks. We strode forward confidently, jabbing our walking poles into the stony ground, scanning the rocks and trees ahead for the trail-markers that would take us down to the waters of Galilee. We were on our way!

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These trail markers – called “blazes” – appear about every 150 metres or so (usually) and will guide us 65 kilometres down to Kfar Nahum (Capernaum) on the Sea of Galilee.

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Israel’s forests are quite degraded. Some people treat them as rubbish dumps.

Around mid-morning we walked into Mash’had, a quiet, almost deserted, little town of multi-floor stone houses. Under Israel’s apartheid-like patchwork of segregated communities Mash’had is labelled “Arab-Muslim”. Like most towns in Israel it lays claim to a special connection with the distant past. Jonah (called Yunus by Muslims) was born into history there three thousand years ago. He got eaten by a giant fish and survived. In the course of time, story becomes history, so Jonah’s grave in Mash’had is proof-positive that he really did survive a three-day sojourn in the belly of the fish.

Heading out of Mash’had we stopped for a drink at an open-air café in the garden of a big, stone villa. The lady of the house apologised she couldn’t keep us company, and after putting cool drinks before us, she tugged at her hijab scarf and leaped into a car. “You here… at home!” she called, revving the car and disappearing into the streets of the town.

From the garden we looked across to the town of Cana spread out as dense and white as a ragged lace curtain along the opposite slope of a small valley. This was our destination for the day, but crossing the valley turned out to be an ordeal. The “path” was a rocky ditch that dipped and zig-zagged among olive trees, tall tough grass, and herds of goats. But we got there. After threading our way through narrow alleys around Cana’s famous “Wedding Church” we checked in to our ultra-simple but very welcoming accommodation at the Cana Wedding Guesthouse.

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Australian gum trees are everywhere in the forests along the Jesus Trail, and here we have a bottlebrush thriving in the garden of a villa in the Arab town of Mash’had.

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Sammy, our affable host at the Cana Wedding Guesthouse, enjoys the apple-flavoured tobacco of his hookah.

The strong aroma of fresh apples hung in the warmth of the late afternoon air. Sammy, the affable proprietor of the Cana Wedding Guesthouse, was sitting on the balcony-verandah, his mouth clamped over the mouthpiece of a hose that led to a hookah on the floor. Thick clouds of sweet-smelling smoke tumbled from his mouth accompanied by cheerful gurgling from the hookah. Between each puff, Sammy’s face broke into its trademark mile-wide smile.

1Jesus_Nakba_sign_Nazarethb

This sign, on a wall in Nazareth, accurately sums up the disaster that overtook the Arabs who had legally lived in their homes and farmed their lands in Palestine for a thousand years. There is fault and ill-will on both sides in the Palestine-Israel dispute, but far more than any other issue, it is this clear, unresolved injustice that keeps the enmity alive.

But at eight o’clock the smile suddenly froze and disappeared. It was May 7th and across the small town of Cana a siren sounded, marking the beginning of Israel’s Memorial Day commemorating soldiers who have fallen in the country’s wars. Understandably, most Palestinian Arabs, like Sammy, do not celebrate this day. As in many public events in Israel, Palestinians are excluded. The state actively lobbies to discourage the small but growing number of Israelis who, on this grief-laden day, try to hold a joint Israeli-Palestinian grieving for the thousands of lives lost, Palestinian and Jewish. This year they held it by torchlight in a park in Tel Aviv. Arabs and Jews who took part were subjected to spitting and abuse from a crowd of racist ultra-right Jews. They were aided and abetted by the government which tried to stop Arabs from the occupied territories from crossing into Israel to attend the commemoration. Israel is a Jewish state – the official line runs – so reconciliation and inclusion are not (officially) on the agenda.

More on Cana’s famous wedding in the next post.

Across Europe Alone, On Foot, Aged Eighteen

Patrick Leigh Fermor A Time of Gifts. London: John Murray, 2004 (first published 1977), 284 pp; Between the Woods and the Water. London: John Murray, 2004 (first published 1986), 242 pp.

In December 1933, as a snowy winter settled over Europe, an English teenager – Patrick Leigh Fermor – fresh out of school, set out to walk alone from the Hook of Holland across Europe to Istanbul (or “Constantinople” as he called it). As the crow flies this is well over 2,000 kilometres, but the distance he traversed must eventually have been closer to 3,000 kilometres. Although he seems to have walked most of the way, he didn’t walk all the way. He went by train over some legs of the trip, occasionally took lifts in cars and barges, and even rode part of the way on horseback. His parents sent him £1 a week to sustain him. He slept in barns or in the open or in small hotels, and thanks to miraculously acquired networks of generous acquaintances, he had memorable stays in the homes of local people, even in a few manors and castles. He was precociously intelligent, strong-willed and slightly eccentric with obsessive interests in certain arcane domains of art, architecture, history, literature and language. He was gregarious and made friends easily, but he also enjoyed solitude, a feature of his personality that is at the heart of an earlier book, the grippingly atmospheric A Time to Keep Silence in which he describes stays at quietist monasteries in France.

It took Fermor a little over one year to reach Istanbul. Around half a century later he published a two volume account of the walk that has become a classic of English travel literature. A Time of Gifts (1977) traces his journey from London to the Hungarian border, and Between the Woods and the Water (1986) follows him through Hungary and Romania to the Bulgarian border. A planned third volume that would have covered the last leg of his walk never materialised. He died last year aged 96.

Fermor brings the walking experience of 80 years ago vividly to life. Compare, for example, his walking kit then with the kit of today. He lists the paraphernalia he is carrying as he walks the mountains of Romania. He is wearing “ammunition boots” bought from Millets in the Strand, London. Two thousand kilometres after purchase he reports that his boots are “crunching along on their only slightly blunted hobnails [and] were still good for unlimited miles.”

He takes stock of his clothes…

“The old breeches were soft with much wear and cleaning, and every stitch was intact; only the grey puttees had suffered minor damage, but nothing showed when I had snipped off the ragged edges where snow and rain had frayed them. A grey shirt with the sleeves rolled up completed this marching gear.” (Between the Woods and the Water p.172-173)

He rummages through his “small” rucksack.

“[It] held all I needed, to wit: a pair of dark flannel bags and another light canvas pair; a thin, decent-looking tweed jacket; several shirts; two ties, gym shoes, lots of socks and jerseys, pyjamas, the length of coloured braid Angela had given me; a dozen new handkerchiefs and a sponge bag, a compass, a jack-knife, two candles, matches, a pipe – falling into disuse – tobacco, cigarettes, and – a new accomplishment – paper for rolling them, and a flask filled in turn, as the countries changed, with whiskey, Bols, schnapps, barack, tzuica, slivivitz, arak and tsiporo. In one of the side pockets there was a five-shilling Ingersoll watch that kept perfect time when I remembered to take it out and wind it up.”

“The only awkward item was the soldier’s greatcoat; I hadn’t worn it for months but felt reluctant to get rid of it. (Luckily. It was perfect for sleeping out, and, folded into a tight sausage and tied round the top of the rucksack, scarcely visible.) I still had the Hungarian walking-stick, intricately carved as a mediaeval crosier, the second replacement for the original ninepenny ashplant from the tobacconist’s off Sloane Square. Apart from sketch-book, pencils and disintegrating maps, there was my notebook-journal and my passport. There was Hungarian and Rumanian Self-Taught (little progress in the one, hesitant first steps in the other); I was re-reading Antic Hay; and there was Schlegel & Tieck’s Hamlet, Prinz von Danemark, bought in Cologne; also, given by the same kind hand as the rucksack, and carefully wrapped up, the beautiful little seventeenth century duadecimo Horace from Amsterdam.”

These few paragraphs say much (but far from all, of course) about Fermor’s interests and style. He is minutely observant. He is besotted with words. He has a knack for encapsulating what he sees in memorable images. Given that he wrote the two books decades after his walk, his detailed memory of the walk is phenomenal. He did, though, keep journals, most (but not all) of which, survived. He also appears to have retraced his steps over parts of the walk in later years. His copious and very learned commentaries on places, buildings, people and texts must, in part, have been distilled from the maturing of his mind, his reading and his experiences in the four or five decades after the walk itself. And there can be little doubt that much of the text, especially the dialogues, is not a documentary facsimile of what he experienced, but was imaginatively reconstructed decades afterwards.

There is no sarcasm, no rancour, little irony, no English snootiness, no hierarchy of cultures. All is fresh. There is little criticism of the communities and individuals he encounters, one of the few exceptions being a scathing portrait of some young nazis (he walked across Germany less than a year after Hitler had taken power). He takes pleasure in those he meets, from Romany shepherds to aristocrats of the remnant – soon to be erased – Hungarian aristocracy, from Konrad – a dodgy street-wise companion with hilariously bookish English – to Angela, his (married) lover for a blissful few weeks in the eden of Carpathia.

Above all it is the intensity of the experience and the exultant sense of youthful freedom that irradiate the narrative.

“As usual, on lonely stretches, poetry and songs came to the rescue, sometimes starting echoes. I still had plenty of food; there were dozens of streams to drink from, many of them thick with watercress, and as I flung myself face down beside one like a stag at eve, I thought how glad I was, at that particular moment, not to be standing properly at ease on the parade ground at Sandhurst. Oxford would have been better, but this was best.” (Between the Woods and the Water p.192-193)

The inevitable pains of walking are little more than momentary irritations.

“Running about in gym shoes next day, my foot landed on an inch of nail sticking out of a plank in a dismantled woodshed and it went clean through. There was little pain and not much blood but it hurt to walk on, so I lay reading in a deck-chair under a tree, then hobbled about with a stick. It healed in three days, and on the fourth I set off.” (Between the Woods and the Water p.215)

There is poignancy in his depiction of the soon to be devastated natural, and built, landscape with its soon to disappear wildlife and people. It is almost unbearable to learn in these pages what we are rapidly losing, or have already lost, in Europe, indeed across the world. Here, for example, is his unforgettable portrait of an eagle – descriptive writing at its finest:

“Soon after setting off in the morning, I halted on a grassy bluff to tie up a lace when I heard a sound that was half a creak and half a ruffle. Looking over the edge to a similar jut just fifteen yards below, I found myself peering at the hunched shoulders of a very large bird at the point where his tawny feathers met plumage of a paler chestnut hue: they thatched his scalp and the nape of his neck and he was tidying up the feathers on his breast and shoulders with an imperiously curved beak. A short hop shifted the bird farther along the ledge and it was only when, with a creak, he flung out his left wing to its full stretch and began searching his armpit, that I took in his enormous size. He was close enough for every detail to show: the buff plus-four feathers covering three-quarters of his scaly legs, the yellow and black on his talons, the square-ended tail feathers, the yellow strip at the base of his upper beak. Shifting from his armpit to his flight-feathers, he set about preening and sorting as though the night had tousled them. He folded the wing back without haste, then flung out the other in a movement which seemed to put him off balance for a moment, and continued his grooming with the same deliberation.

Careful not to move an eyelash, I must have watched for a full twenty minutes. When both wings were folded , he sat peering masterfully about, shrugging and hunching his shoulders from time to time, half-spreading a wing then folding it back, and once stretching the jaws of his beak wide in a gesture like a yawn, until at length on a sudden impulse, with a creak and a shudder, he opened both wings to their full tremendous span, rocking for a moment as though his balance were in peril; then, with another two or three hops and a slow springing movement of his plus-four legs, he was in the air, all his flight-feathers fanning out separately and lifting at the tips as he moved his wings down, then dipping with the following upward sweep. After a few strokes, both wings came to rest and formed a single line, with all his flight-feathers curling upwards again as he allowed an invisible air-current to carry him out and down and away, correcting his balance with hardly perceptible movements as he sailed out into the great gulf.” (Between the Woods and the Water p.193-194)

Equally he is sensitive to the palpable, but often esoteric and fragile, presence of history. Here is a random example from Heidelberg in western Germany, where a visit to a palace awakens memory of connections with the British monarchy of the present.

“That afternoon, with Fritz and a friend, I climbed through the woods to look at the ruins of the palace that overhangs the town: an enormous complex of dark red stone which turns pink, russet or purple with the vagaries of light and the hour. The basic mass is mediaeval, but the Renaissance bursts out again and again in gateways and courtyards and galleries and expands in the delicate sixteenth-century carving. Troops of statues posture in their scalloped recesses. Siege and explosion had partly wrecked it when the French ravaged the region. When? In the Thirty Years War; one might have guessed… But who had built it? Didn’t I know? Die Kurfursten van der Pfalz! The Electors Palatine… We were in the old capital of the Palatinate…

Distant bells, ringing from faraway English class-rooms, were trying to convey a forgotten message; but it was no good. “Guess what this gate is called!” Fritz said, slapping a red column. “The Elizabeth, or English Gate! Named after the English princess.” Of course! I was there at last! The Winter Queen! Elizabeth, the high-spirited daughter of James I, Electress Palatine and, for a year, Queen of Bohemia! She arrived as a bride of seventeen and for five years of her reign, Heidelberg, my companions said, had never seen anything like the masques and the revels and the balls. But soon, when the Palatinate and Bohemia were both lost and her brother’s head was cut off and the Commonwealth had reduced her to exile and poverty, she was celebrated as the Queen of Hearts by a galaxy of champions. Her great-niece, Queen Anne, ended the reigning line of the Stuarts and Elizabeth’s grandson, George I, ascended the throne where her descendant still sits.” (A Time of Gifts p.58-59)

This dense erudition appears almost on every page of the two books. Fermor’s esoteric scholarly impulses (today they might be called “nerdish” but eighty years ago they summoned up real respect) are imbued with reverence that fetishises the objects of his obsessive interest. Even his “little edition of Horace” mentioned above, gets the treatment. “It was bound in stiff, grass-green leather,” he says, “the text had long s’s, mezzotint vignettes of Tibur, Lucretilis and the Bandusian spring, a scarlet silk marker, the giver’s bookplate and a skeleton leaf from his Estonian woods.”

In fact his ultra-precise use of language can be a problem for the vocab-challenged reader (e.g. me). On almost every page I was brought to a halt by words I didn’t know. This was a real obstacle to enjoyment of the two books. Part way through Between the Woods and the Water I became so exasperated with my stop-start progress that I made a list of the words that I only understood after looking them up in my Macquarie Dictionary (and some of them weren’t in this pretty fat dictionary). Between pages 188 and 238 (50 pages) for example, I puzzled over the following (see how many you recognise): tines, boles, curvetting, semibreves, ashlars, dejection-cones, ruffle (describing a sound), buff (describing feathers), beetle (for felling trees?), billhook, deal (as in “cut into deal planks”), elf-locks, corvees, rebarbative, rubrics, distaff, shieling, adumbration, osier, greaved, undercroft, askim, cumbered, agaves, kursaals, sabretaches, viridian drugget, rubicund, sybaritic, snotties, volutes, hay-wains, tabards, gyre, empyrean, baldric.

For all this, Fermor’s memoir is compellingly readable. Above all it is the author’s exuberant embrace of life that is memorable. It would be much too glib to say it is a “hymn to lost youth” but the title of the first volume A Time of Gifts is lifted from Louis MacNeice’s poem “Twelfth Night” with its melancholy, solemnly tolling evocation of the sense of loss that follows the years of youth:

For now the time of gifts is gone,

O boys that grow, O snows that melt,

O bathos that the years must fill…

As I read I was increasingly invaded by a kind of despair. What Fermor embodied – his courage, his exuberance, his sense of adventure, his strong sense of personal independence, his initiative, his trust in people and trust in life itself… today they all seem to be increasingly under attack by disciples of the security industry and the “safety” ethic.. In particular, the notion that young people – teenagers – cannot be trusted to be left alone that I feel seems to be on the increase. This makes it more difficult for starry-eyed teenagers to do what Fermor did. Back in the 1930s the imperial ethos still ruled in Britain, at least it ruled the middle class and the petty aristocracy that Fermor’s family came from. It was common – in fact normal and expected – for young men to “go to the colonies” and go alone. For the middle and upper classes of Europe the imperial age was an interregnum of freedom between centuries of feudal and church dominated authoritarianism and the rise of fascism and communism. In the second half of the twentieth century, after the fall of fascism and communism, there was a widepread reaction against excessive regimentation and surveillance of young people. “Flower power”, sexual liberation, rebellious rock music, The Peace Corps, women’s emancipation… all these and much more flourished, and still do. But today there can be no doubt that the freedoms of teenagers are being wound back, slowly, steathily, but very steadily, mostly in the name of economic rationalism and security.

Somehow we now find ourselves in an age when many (most?) parents are reluctant to let their children walk alone to the local school. A few years back a New York mother triggered a furore when she permitted her nine-year old son to ride home alone – alone!! – on the city subway (see http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/23935873/ns/today-today_news/t/mom-lets–year-old-take-subway-home-alone/#.T4j5ZFG_G88. ) The mother was subjected to abuse and the gobbledigook of “experts”. Given that New York is today one of the safest cities in the U.S. few were able to produce coherent objections to the mother’s decision. The best that many could do was burble the word “inappropriate” (what a slithery, empty, weazel-word that is).

In 2009 Australian teenager Jessica Watson set off, with her parents’ blessing, to sail alone around the world. She was farewelled with cries of outrage. The Australian Childhood Foundation questioned whether a 16 year old girl would have the ability to fully understand the risks that such a venture would involve. The Australian Family Association said it is normally people of 50 or 60 who have the sort of maturity needed to deal with long-distance journeys and isolation.

Dutch teenager Laura Dekker got much the same treatment. She also wanted to sail alone around the world and her father supported her. But when the Dutch child welfare authorities got wind of it they objected and ruled that she was too young to be aware of the dangers. A court order placed her in shared parental custody with the Council for Child Care who stopped her departure. The court whined that an isolated two year voyage on the high seas would damage her development. A legal struggle ensued that eventually saw the decision reversed, and at the age of 15 Laura Dekker was permitted to set sail. She, like Jessica Watson and eighteen-year old British teenager Michael Perham, successfully completed the circumnavigation. No harm came to any of them, in fact it was the making of them.

At the entrance to a walking track near Kiama south of Wollongong in New South Wales, a big sign warns walkers (teenagers are explicitly mentioned) that they risk serious injury or death. One of the many mortal dangers they face, apparently, is the danger of getting skittled by a train. You might also get gored by cattle or trampled by horses.

… and here is the fearsomely dangerous track with the big warning sign on the right. The track is pretty much like this all the way down the six kilometres of its length, though in one or two places it does come within ten metres of a steep incline into the sea, and elsewhere it threatens the lives of walkers by approaching to a point about 50 metres from a railway line. But as you can see, there is not a single enraged cow or homicidal horse in sight.

Paradoxically, as our immediate social environment becomes safer there seems to be more and more concern about the fragility of personal safety. “Stay safe” has become a common expression at leave-taking. New Year’s wishes now regularly include an exhortation to “stay safe” in the coming year. The real safety threats we face – population growth, destruction of the environment, climate change, pollution, increasing social divisions, the disappearance of cheap energy etc. – are pushed aside by a fixation on a pastiche of quite rare threats with vaguely human faces: kidnappers, Muslim terrorists, perverts, drive-by gunmen, boat people, drug lords, enraged tail-gaters, teenagers in hoodies etc. etc.

It would be tempting to see conspiracies here, or fulminate in moral terms against timidity, excessive surveillance and obsession with risk aversion. But I prefer to see the phenomenon in more morally neutral, deterministic terms. Economic rationalism and rampant managerialism – two of the most powerful forces at work in our society – impress their values into every nook and cranny of our lives and minds in a creeping, incremental process that we tend not to notice. They rationalise personal surveillance in the name of efficiency, security, ever higher living standards, and even personal freedom. New technology makes close surveillance widely possible and unobtrusive. The mindset of the risk avoidance and risk management industries likewise comes to infuse everything we do. To maximise efficiency, productivity and profit outcomes, threats must be identified (if they can’t be identified they must be conjured up) and risks minimised. Children and teenagers have to be educated into this imperative, this “normality”. If children or teenagers want to wander off on their own in an unregulated way they now find it more difficult to do (far from impossible, of course) than it was in the days of Fermor’s youth.

If he had been young today Patrick Leigh Fermor might have been a teenager in a hoodie. By all accounts he was far from quiet and obedient at school, although in retrospect the misdemeanours that got him kicked out of schools seem very trivial. His account of his long-distance walk does us the service of telling us what we are losing. It is not just youth or a now-distant way of life, but the freedom to be young, to take risks, to be alone, and to be left alone.