Saturday, July 07, 2007

Taken in the back of a truck, after a hard week hiking. At 11 in the morning

Anti-fascist hiking anybody?

Yep, that’s what I’ve just spent a week doing, in a manner of speaking anyway, out in the Low Tatra mountains in central Slovakia. Every year in the first week of July, a hike is organised by the Slovak Tourist Club and Slovak Association of Anti-Fascist Fighters to commemorate the Slovak National Uprising of 1944. The hike spans approx. 130 km, including fairly demanding uphill and downhill sections, and well over 100 people, mostly Czechs and Slovaks, take part. Having just arrived back home a decimated shell of the man I was a week ago, my admiration for those brave men who took on the Nazis is currently at its all-time peak.

This was my third partisans’ hike in as many years and by far the most gruelling, due entirely to the weather conditions – after a couple of days of pleasant July weather it then turned to freezing cold rain, battering winds and zero visibility, basically hiking through a cloud at up to 2000 metres above sea level. After a couple of days of that I was righteously pissed off and ready to jack it in, and in fact our small group of Anglophone pussies did wimp out and get the train home a day early (in our defence so did at least half of the Czechs and Slovaks on the walk). All of which sounds like a pathetic bunch of self-pitying whining when you consider that the partisans were up there in the winter, presumably not sleeping in tents admittedly, but no doubt carrying heavy weaponry and without the benefits of the latest in Gore Tex technology.

On such occasions machismo is never far from the surface, frequently bubbling over in the form of excruciatingly heavy and competitive, if good-natured drinking. In many cases with a quite painfully manifest death wish. Although the Czechs are, according to the statistics, the heaviest drinkers in the EU, in my experience the Slovaks have them comprehensively whipped, and I suspect they are just too wild and uncontrollable to feature in any reliable statistics. Scenes of life-threatening excess are not merely tolerated, they are mandatory. Beer is freely available, generally not as good as in the Czech Republic although still several times better than the skull-pummelling, stomach-scorching, bowel-rupturing devils piss that passes for beer in Poland. However, like the Poles, many Slovaks scorn beer anyway in favour of terrifyingly large shots of spirits, distilled for example from potatoes, juniper berries, various blends of herbs, or bear shit*. More experienced hikers seemingly would not dream of breaking camp without at least half a litre of firewater in their backpack. Is this similarity of Slovaks to Poles in terms of their drinking habits only down to the inferior quality of their beer (though Slovak beer mostly isn’t at all bad), or rather due to the greater influence of the Roman Catholic church in these parts? Benedict, not for the first time, you have a lot to answer for.

On the other hand, who’s to say that’s not what kept the partisans going all those years ago? I meant the spirits, not the Catholicism - if they can be separated that is. Foolhardy and impetuous glutton for punishment that I may be, I’m now preparing for a trip down to Serbia, another country with fine anti-fascist traditions. Plus I hear they know how to throw a good party…

*spot the one I made up


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