Walking through Celtic Heartlands

I have been guilty of ethnocentricity in my collection of posts about Celtic Iron Age Technology in that I related them solely to the culture and lifestyle associated with Ireland from roughly 300 BCE to the arrival of Christianity some 730 years later. Of course, no one in Ireland during that time would have considered themselves Celts – or Irish – for that matter, but Celtic is what they were.

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This year, travelling through France, Switzerland, Austria, Slovakia, Croatia and Slovenia I realised that I was in the very heartlands of the people known by the Romans as Galli or Galatae and as Keltoi by the Greeks, but what they called themselves is conjecture.  Prehistoric Bronze Age peoples, loosely linked by a common heritage, style, languages, customs and art, from the central and east central plains of Europe coalesced around 750 BCE, with the discovery and use of iron to become the most powerful people in Europe from about 450 BCE – 250 BCE.

 

Initially a nomadic, pastoral people who favoured the cow and the horse above all other, they adopted agriculture and settled down around La Tène in modern day Switzerland and around the Lake Neuchatel in modern Austria.IMG_0781

Archaeologists labelled certain cultures within the Late Bronze Age over view. The culture known as Urnfield, where the dead were cremated in pots, is considered ‘proto’ Celts followed by the Hallstatt – after a huge site in Austria – in 1200 BCE.

From 450 BCE, Celtic culture was marked by La Tène – after a lakeside site in Switzerland. There, a large quantity of material goods was found. With their discovery of iron, both in agricultural – better ploughshares – and in war – spears and swords – the Celts flooded new areas, urged on by increasing population and the need for more farmland.IMG_0732

Spread out from their base in North East Europe, inevitably they came into contact, and met resistance, from the expanding Roman Empire. Pushed back north and west into Gaul, modern-day France, the Celts were hemmed in by Scandinavian tribes moving south themselves as Slavic tribes pushed in from the east.

Under pressure on all sides, the Celts retreated to Britain and Ireland before even those in Britain were pushed to the extremes of Scotland, Wales and Cornwall by the arrival of the Saxons and other Germanic and Scandinavian tribes with the last remnants of true Celtic culture ensconced in Ireland until the arrival of Christianity circa 400 A.D.

So goes the myth anyway, I suppose, but at the same time, I felt comfortable and at ease walking through these heartlands. Perhaps it was the beer!

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Piquant Liver

One of the things I looked forward to most during my European Peace Walk through Austria, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia and Italy was exploring local cuisine, delighting at the newly discovered variety and novelty. The obverse of course is also, unfortunately, true. Ill-prepared, bland tourist fodder or the ubiquitous pizza or kebab,IMG_0866 usually on offer in the same low-grade style cafe – sometimes the only thing available in villages along the route of my walk – so I congratulated myself when, after a fairly gruelling walk of 30k plus, I arrived in Postojna in south-western Slovenia and looked forward to a good meal.

A lusty male choir in the chilly town square made sitting on the outdoor terrace of Hotel Kras unattractive and there were no seats in the bustling, brightly lit restaurant inside, but the waitress recommended another restaurant a few hundred metres away but, when I arrived, it was another pizza restaurant and it was closed.

Hunger began to make the prospect of a kebab seem feasible especially as a light rain started. A policeman mentioned a restaurant in the “red house” on the far side of the square but that too seemed to be closed as there were no lights on. Despairing, I walked around to the car park at the back and there was a lighted staircase leading to a basement restaurant, bright, warm and cheery inside.

There was an English menu and the chef’s specialty was braised liver in red wine. No hesitation here, a bottle of red wine – the waiter’s recommendation – and a starter of stuffed wild mushrooms in a nutty sauce and a delicious, rich dish of tender liver slivers, still pink inside.

I have distinct – and delicious – childhood memories of liver with creamed spuds and baked beans but since then I seem to have skipped over offal themed meals, although there was that fantastic liver, bacon and onion dish in the Serasa Yacht Club but that was in another lifetime and a different century! Anyway, inspired by my Slovenian meal, here is my take on liver, for what it is worth.

Ingredients

200 g lamb liver                            1 onion, cut in ringsIMG_0984

3/4 tsp whole black pepper

1/2 tsp mustard powder

1/2 tsp flour

10g butter

1 tsp oil

good splash of medium dry sherry

splash of Worcestershire sauce

1 Tblsp lemon juice

salt

Method

1.Crush the peppercorns and mix with the flour and mustard powder.IMG_0990

2. Heat oil and fry the onion rings for about 10 minutes until brown at the edges. Remove from heat.IMG_0991

Some recommend steeping the liver in milk before flash frying.  I tried both steeping and non-steeping with no appreciable difference.

3. Quickly fry the liver, sliced finger thick. When spots of blood begins to appear, flip them over. IMG_0993They should still be slightly pink inside.

4. Add to the onion.

5. Stir the flour, pepper, and mustard into pan. Soak up all the juices and then add sherry, followed by the Worcestershire and the lemon juice. Thin with more sherry, if necessary.

6. Season with salt and pepper. Pour over liver and onion. Serve with creamed spuds.

Sadly, plating a dish was never my forté but trust me, it tastes better than my photos look!IMG_1002

 

Lamentation

I have just finished Lamentation, the sixth novel by C. J. Sansom in the Shardlake* series, a massive 700 page historical mystery and detective story centred on the last year of the reign of the Tudor monarch, Henry VIII from the summer of 1546 until his death in January 1547.

The humanitarian and caring Matthew Shardlake, lawyer at Lincoln’s Inn, is once again, unwilling, involved in the murders and religious mayhem that ran rife during Henry’s reign.

The novel begins with the ghastly account of the burning at the stake of Anne Askew, and three other unfortunates in Smithfield, accused of heresy, a charge which Shardlake himself will face later on in the novel, recalling the last time the hunchback lawyer was dragged to the Tower of London for a tortuous questioning.

IMG_0997Without giving too much away, as Henry VIII vacillates between reform and traditionalist religion during the last months of his life, his court is divided between the Catholic and Protestant councillors vying to control Henry’s successor, the eight-year old Prince Edward. Henry’s last wife, the reformist Catherine Parr, formerly Catherine Latimer and the unrequited love interest of the solitary and melancholic sergeant -at-law, enlists his aid as she desperately fends off attacks from within the court and from mysterious and powerful influences in the world outside Whitehall.

As with the previous five Shardlake novels, the multiple plots concern a legal case unconnected with the hunchback lawyer’s involvement with the Tudor courts, something he had previously sworn to avoid. The inevitable conflicts, brought about by intimidation and violence, confirm the determination and bravery of Shardlake, showcasing his conscience and the inevitable consequences in a world of religious and political turmoil.

As always, London itself plays an atmospheric role as Shardlake trudges the dusty and pungent streets and alleyways of the medieval city in his quest to aid the endangered queen and to solve the litigations case between two quarrelling siblings with which he has become embroiled. The authentic background, the rich characterisation, and the wonderful weaving together of plot and historical reality combined with the final, real-politic twist make Lamentation the apotheosis of this sextet of fantastic novels.

Excitingly, C.J. Sansom hints, in the very last pages of the novel, that Shardlake may continue to see further service, but this time, in the service of the future Queen, Elizabeth I. Like many others, no doubt, I hold my breath in anticipation and look forward to a continuing Shardlake saga.

  • See my earlier blog about the first five Shardlake novels in the series

Floating

I watched a Christopher Nolan* movie recently on the long flight home – holy-moly, who understands or follows any of his plots on first viewing as they weave in and out, forward and back in undefined flash-forwards and backs? – and one of the main characters ejected from a doomed space station in a streamlined, white pod that zoomed through the atmosphere before plunging into the ocean.

IMG_0956I didn’t actually plunge but tentatively tried “a float’ in a space-aged pod to recover from my walk in Europe. Sleek and gently oval in shape, the pod is loaded with 500Kg of Epsom salts and the water gently heated to body temperature, allowing you to float and relax while the magnesium salts permeate the skin and relax tired muscles.

Remarkable therapeutic benefits, relieving stress, pain, fatigue, arthritis and fibromyalgia, are just some of the benefits claimed for the float and I was keen to try. Who wouldn’t? Described by some as otherworldly, a pure, blissful experience accompanied by deep feelings of lightens and grace.

Anyway, I turned up for this new adventure and there it was – the pod from the Nolan movie that had crashed into the ocean, only this one was sleeker and more inviting, a smooth, eggshell shape, yawning temptingly before me, soft internal pastel lights changing automatically.

I stepped into knee deep, warm water, pulled the (escape) hatch down, and lay back on the subtly shifting water as it adjusted so perfectly that I was barely aware of floating.

With the hatch down, it was stygian black – I couldn’t actually say ‘inside’, because I had no sense of the space around me, where right or left were, and which way was up or down – and alone, I floated or drifted in complete silence and darkness not knowing if my eyes were open or closed. There was no current, no movement until I thrashed around trying to centre myself, as if that were important.

I suddenly realised that everything I was experiencing then came from within me. There was no distraction, no outside stimuli to lead my wandering mind, nothing to look at, and nothing to hear or see. Deprived of most of the usual senses, I hung there passively, doing nothing.

Things are so black that I could imagine seeing vivid, other worldly scenes but all I saw was nothing. It reminded me of a comic scene where one character says, appreciatively, ‘ah, the sound of silence’ and the other character responds, ‘what? I don’t hear anything.’

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I giggled then and listened to the sound of my heart and the blood pulsing in my body and then it was all over and I stepped out into the “chill-out” room with a cup of herbal tea. Did I feel lighter, more vibrant, was I boosted, were my dopamine and endorphin levels brimming over?

Not knowing what my endorphin or dopamine levels were before, it was difficult to say if they were raised after the float but I certainly felt pleased with myself for no apparent reason, and there might even have been a bounce to my step and my hair definitely felt fluffy!

 

* Christopher Nolan directed Inception, Momento, Batman Begins, Interstellar, The Dark Knight, The Prestige, Dunkirk, among others

Jelly Wrestling

I have just come back from eight weeks, mostly in Eastern in Europe, some of which I spent walking about 600K from Sopron in Hungary to Trieste in Italy.

I brought my iPhone with me and the idea was that I would blog stuff to my website as I wandered along. I think I did it once. So much for that idea! I suppose other things – drinking super cheap beer and dealing with blisters and blackened toe nails – got in the way.

I had a wonderful and memorable time and I kept thinking how boring my home in Australia is when compared with the sights and scenes throughout Eastern Europe.

I returned home last week and I went down to my local – boring – pub for a quick pint before dinner. In recent years, the place has been tarted up so that on one side is the “family-oriented bistro” and on the other side is the so-called “sports bar” joined to the TAB or betting shop where a few elderly men hang out, watching the races or footy on the large screen TV’s.

This night the car park was unusually full and I thought there might be a “skimpy” serving the drinks as they usually drum up custom. As I walked up the back steps to the sports bar, I overheard some guy on the phone excitedly explaining why he couldn’t leave just yet because of the “jelly wrestling”! What?

Inside, the place was packed with tradies, still in their work boots and hi-vis clothes of yellow and orange, talking animatedly and drinking up a storm – it was Friday night after all.

In the middle of the floor was an inflatable child’s paddling pool filled with blue, gelatinous, soft, squishy beads. In the pool itself were two bikini-clad girls grappling with each other, slipping and sliding around in the blue goo.

Whenever one girl managed to “throw” the other, the victor would mount the victim and cursorily simulate sex with a few thrusts of her glistening hips, to the uproar and applause of the watching men.

Well, I never saw that in the country towns and villages in Slovenia or Croatia for sure, I thought to myself. I just wish Australian beer was as good and as cheap as it was there!

Footloose & Fancy Free or Footsore & Weary

Started this European Peace Walk — this is me on the first day – on Tuesday July 04, from Sopron in Hungary and ending in Trieste in Italy, passing through Austria, Hungary, Slovakia, Croatia, Slovenia and finally Italy. In Croatia now and about half way there but the blisters are mounting. So far, great food, interesting people and cheap beer. On the down side, I am sick of trudging through muddy, ploughed up corn and wheat fields and getting lost in dark forests where I am a main course for voracious insects and fair game for stinging nettles!

In Krapina, Croatia, letting the blisters heal. Seems like a fantastic little kip – loads of bars and cafes and there is even a museaum devoted to Neantherthal Man!

South America Summary

A rather amazing trip, from Cuba in the far north, down to Ecuador and on to Peru, where I ate guinea pig, alpaca and llama, missing out on Machu Pichu but taking a 22 hour bus ride from Lima up to Cusco in the heart of the Andes. Over then to Lake Titicaca and a boat trip out to the weird, artificial islands of floating reeds and over the border into Bolivia where the bus seemed to climb endlessly and I lay sprawled in my seat, munching coca leaves and gasping for breath as we topped 4800 metres. A gradual descent then, of only 200 metres towards La Paz, only to find the city blocaded by local indigenous people who had thrown up ramparts of earth and rubble blocking the main highway into the city. Eventually we had to stop and take on an Incan guide who showed the bus driver how to thread his way rough narrow, grimy back streets until we eventually arrived, me exhausted and still panting, in La Paz. The next day, the whole city ground to a standstill as angry miners paraded through the city centre, while heavily armed police with pump-action grenade launchers stood on every street corner, heavy steel chains in their hands ready to seal off any street disturbance. The next day it was the turn of the students and again the city centre was paralysed. Enough was enough for me, and, still breathless, I managed to get a bus out and south, although that took unneccesary hours as again we had to thread our way past endless blockades. Finally, a train, one of the noisiest and decrepit trains I have ever been on, down as far as the Argentinian border. What a relief – an ordered, organised city with working traffic lights, freeways and highway diamonds and gorgeous wine. Even better was the black market In foreign currency – the official rate for US dollars being about 9 pesos to the dollar. Unofficially, the rate was about 16 to the dollar, and quite openly so – touts hanging around outside banks and exchanges. Made quite a difference to the budget and was able to afford some very decent wine. On from Salta, on the border into serious wine country, thought the most magnificent canyon and arid countryside to the little town of Cafayate where I spent more than a week eating huge steaks and plundering their bodegas. Down to Tucuman and Córdoba (cities I had never heard of, where accomodation was hard to come by as it was the middle of an exceptionally long holiday weekend. On again to Mendoza , the real heart of Argentinean wine and more steaks, huge 500 g slabs of bleeding cow on a plate washed down with more than a bottle of red wine. Bliss. I seem to have adopted a paleolithic style diet where all I ate was meat – no veg or fruit, just meat and gulped wine.

I made enquirers about a bus over the Andes to Santiago in Chile, only to be informed  that all bus services over the Andes between Mendoza and Santiago had been suspended due to bad weather and snow. So more steak and red wine and eventually I managed to get a ticket for Saturday but no guarantee that the bus would run the 8 hour trip.

What a ride! Probably the most exciting and certainly most scenic bus trip I have ever taken.

Finally the end of the trip approaching in the form of Santiago, Chile and I could breath again, altitude a mere 480 metres only. A few days there, more steaks, and yes, more red wine but now that I have arrived in Valpariaso, it is gorgeous seared tuna fish with a salad of avocado, asparagus and tomato and white wine.

I must admit, with tales of the Gringo Trail in mind, I was expecting to be offered tons of coke and weed, but it was a surprisingly sober trip. I bought a gram of coke in Ecuador for $15 and approached it with trepidation, rolling up $100 bills in expectation. I thought it might be best to do it straight and then go for a beer and that is what I did. A tiny bit of speed, maybe, and nothing else.

Bought another gram somewhere else and marginally better – I was only doing this, of course to help with the breathing. Somewhere else, in one of the hostels, got chatting with one of the guys working there, I think he was a Brit, and he invited me to share an actual lump of coke which was – I think – much better but as I stayed up until 5:00 am, I’m not too sure. I then had to face a 14 hour bus trip so I was a subdued little man for a while.

General Observations

Cuba – very fat ladies squeezed in to tight Lycra pants; very generous measures of rum; great music in the bars, mildewed buildings.

Ecuador – organised and efficient, gorgeous ceviche, panic buttons in this taxis, dry Sundays!

Peru – no pepper in restaurants, crap coffee, grey Pacific, rum served with whipped egg white, coca leaves for chewing with a lump of stevia (to help with altitude), super clean wet markets, amazing displays of fruit, veg never seen before, enormous servings of meat, inca women with very long plaited hair, shawls and bowler hats perched on their heads

Bolivia – a shambles, road blocks condoning off La Paz from the outskirts, erected by local indigenous in protest at …, huge street protests in La Paz, seriously armed police with pump action tear gas shotguns, trouble breathing most of the time.

Argentine – easy border crossing with no paperwork at all, bus searched by troops at a military checkpoint, huge highways and flyovers, a modern country (compared to Cuba and Bolivia), a black market in U.S. Dollars.

Chile – Lovely wines – Colchuagua Valley (despite the fact that I never made that pilgrimage) being one of my favourites.

Lounged my time away in Valparaiso and small coastal towns like Viña del Mar, bravong myself for the long flight actoss the pacific to Sydney na d onwards to perth.