Thursday, 28 December 2017

Follow your dreams

I don’t have a bucket-list as such; you know, a list of things you'd like to do before you shuffle off this mortal coil (kick the bucket). As the wise-man said "Having a bucket list, is to have a life and utilise it fully before it's knocked off from under your feet"!

The prime reason for not having compiled a bucket list, or at least one which is fixed, is  the fact that priorities and life situations change. Visions and dreams  constantly evolve over time, and some long cherished desires, the fulfillment of which may once have seemed imperative, no longer seem as important as they once did, or indeed even necessary.

An example of this is a desire I had as an eighteen year old, in my first year of university. I had been reading a book about hidden places of the world; some might even have called the "hidden wonders". I can’t remember who the book was written by, but that’s not important. What is important was  being almost blown away  by a lengthy write-up, accompanied by a number of black and white photos, of Machu Picchu; the long abandoned, former Inca stronghold, high up in the Andes.

Martin St-Amant - Wikipedia - CC-BY-SA-3.0
Here was a place which, for centuries, had lain hidden from sight, only to be “re-discovered” sometime around the beginning of the last  century.  I remember thinking at the time how much I would love to visit this amazing citadel, which had disappeared from human knowledge for all those years. I wasn’t sure how I’d be able to achieve this, but back then I had a fascination with exploration and the discovery of hidden treasures; something which dated from having read as a boy, the  novel “King Solomon’s Mines”, by H. Rider Haggard.

Years passed, and like most of us I was swept up by life’s currents and carried along the familiar path of study, work, marriage, home ownership and family. So like many others, any dreams of adventure I may have once harboured, ended up being swept out of the window, and out of my consciousness.

Machu Picchu came back onto my radar a few years ago. A work colleague had been telling me about the trek her daughter had undertaken high up in the Andes, to Machu Picchu, whilst on a trip to South America. She had returned enthusing about  this "lost citadel of the Incas", saying  how amazing the place was.

I decided to do some research of my own, and discovered there are a number of tour operators offering such treks, but I also discovered a hidden downside. My colleague had failed to mention this, perhaps her daughter hadn't told her, but the fact remains that the trail has become so popular today, that paths are wearing away, litter has become an enormous problem, and when trekkers actually get there,  they find a queuing system in place, with strict limits on the time spent amongst the remains.

Much the same is happening on Mount Everest. Who would have thought, back in the day when the mountain was first conquered, that hordes of wealthy western tourists would be queuing up to scale the peak?  Amazingly, since that day in 1953 when Hilary and Tenzing first stood on the summit of the world's tallest mountain, over 400 people have now followed in their footsteps; although despite modern equipment and survival gear, around 75 of these  people have died in their attempt to reach the summit.

We're getting slightly off piste here, so whilst I don't have a Bucket List as such, there are places and activities which I keep in the back of my mind, with the aim that one day they will surface so I can take action to bring them into reality. I have achieved many of these desires over the past few decades, and am regularly adding new ones.

Most of these desires involve visiting places which have featured on my "wish list" for quite some time, and here I am talking about trips to Prague, Munich,  Bamberg and Cesky Krumlov. Beer played an important role in the selection of these places, so it is worth looking at them in slightly more detail.

Prague 1984
Prague was the first of these locations I visited; my desire being sparked after reading Richard Boston's excellent Beer & Skittles; an account of his journey through the world of beer, brewing  and pubs. I was a student when I acquired my copy in 1975, and was enthralled reading Boston's account of his time in Prague 10 years previously. He'd been traveling by train, through Germany and Austria, before crossing into Czechoslovakia, and had only intended to spend a couple of days in Prague.

Stunned by the quality, and cheapness of the beer, and enthralled by the architecture and setting of the city, he ended up staying a week, in his words "Going from place to place drinking this wonderful beer and feeling more and more like the Good Soldier Svejk".

Prague 2015
With a recommendation like that, how could I also not wish to emulate him, and fortunately my chance came just nine years later when some friends and I booked a place on a trip, organised by CAMRA Travel, to Pilsen and Prague. I have written about this trip on a couple of previous occasions, so I won't go into detail, apart from saying how lucky I was to have experienced this golden city, in its pre-Velvet Revolution, communist days.

I have been back to Prague several times, since the collapse of communism and whilst life, living standards and facilities have obviously improved by several orders of magnitude for its citizens, there was something about that first visit when the beer, the architecture and the people stood out amongst the dull, grey mediocrity of life under a totalitarian regime.

I was inspired to visit Munich after reading the Good Beer Guide to Munich & Bavaria, published by CAMRA in 1994, and researched and written by Graham Lees. Lees was one of the four founding members of CAMRA, and after living and working in Munich for several years, had decided to write this pioneering guide. It was dedicated to "All who appreciate good beer, regardless of borders"; something which rings very true with those of us appalled at the direction our government is taking us in.

I had to wait 11 years before my chance to visit the Bavarian capital came about, but I was not disappointed at what I found. Graham Lees's publication still proved its worth in guiding  me to some of the best pubs and bars in Munich, as well as some of the best beers the city had to offer.  I also found time on that initial 3 day visit  to takes  trips out to  Kloster Andechs and Weihenstephan; the first a location where the monks still brew beer, and the second  a place which started life as a monastic brewery, and which now claims to be the "oldest brewery in the world".

I have returned to Munich many times, since that initial visit in 2005, and on my most recent trip, just a few months ago, I was able to fulfill another long-standing desire; namely visiting the world famous Oktoberfest for the first time. I even took the family with me!

I first became aware of the beautiful baroque city of Bamberg, and its famous "smoke  beer", whilst on the coach traveling back from that CAMRA trip to Prague. A couple of obvious beer enthusiasts, sitting in the seat in front of me, started talking about the city and its beer as we sped  along the Autobahn, past the turn-off to Bamberg.

I'd been vaguely aware of "smoke beer" after flicking through the pages of Michael Jackson's "World Guide to Beer", published in 1977, but it was Michael's' ground-breaking TV series, "The Beer Hunter", which really inspired me to visit Bamberg.

My chance came in late December 2007, after spotting an ad in one of the local free newspapers. A travel firm were running a coach trip to Franconia, taking in Nuremberg and its world famous Christmas market, but also including a visit to Bamberg. I paid my money and embarked on the trip.

As it happened the itinerary only allowed for a morning in Bamberg itself, but as soon as the coach dropped us off, I made a beeline for the renowned Aecht Schlenkerla tavern,  in the heart of the old city, and managed to drink my fill of its famous Rauchbier, dispensed from a wooden cask, whist chatting to a visitor from Coburg, about our shared royal-family connections. I also brought back with me a 5 litre keg, plus as many bottles as I could carry.
I spent a much more leisurely visit to the city, two and a half years later, when my son and spent a week in Bamberg, during what must have been one of the hottest July's on record. This was followed by a return visit in December of the same year (2010), where the snowfall was one of the heaviest the city had experienced in years, and the temperatures were well below freezing.

Finally we come to the wonderful southern Bohemian town of Cesky Krumlov, and once again I have Graham Lees to thank for inspiring me to visit this lovely old town in its stunning setting on the Vltava River.

Not content with his guide to Munich and Bavaria, Graham brought out a second guide in 1996; this time a Guide to Prague & the Czech Republic. Whilst providing an invaluable guide to what was then a country only recently freed from the shackles of communism,  Lees uses the publication to express his concerns that in the rush to modernise their brewing industry, after decades of stagnation under socialism, the Czechs were in real danger of losing the very qualities which made their breweries, their beer and their pubs so special.

Whilst these concerns are outside the immediate scope of this post, they were still very real, and the danger was that the Czechs would repeat the same mistakes made by the British brewing industry, 30 years previously (big name brands, pressurised beer, dilution of choice etc). More to the point were some of the places the author recommend readers to visit.

Chief of these as far as I was concerned was Cesky Krumlov. Lees described this small, southern Bohemian town as a "Time-warped, medieval beauty, built in a tight loop of the River Vltava". He went on to say that "It's as though some witch had cast a Sleeping  Beauty-like spell over the entire edifice. But the spell is now wearing off, and the more tourists who "discover" it, the more it will change".

Many tourist had of course, "discovered" it during the 20 years since those words were written and the visit of my son and I, two years ago. Cesky Krumlov is still well worth seeing. It's massive castle, overlooking the river, is the second largest in the country, after Prague, and the old town is still a maze of twisting, narrow streets, virtually unchanged since medieval times.

There are hordes of mainly Chinese tourists, complete with their  selfie-sticks, but they tend to gravitate around the castle and the old town square, and can normally be easily avoided. However, do go soon, before the town becomes too gentrified!

Visiting  the USA also featured highly on my list of places to visit, and I achieved this desire back in 2008, when I spent 10 days staying with my sister and her American husband. I haven't finished with North America though, as another desire is to undertake a "trans-continental railroad trip" across the USA, from the Atlantic coast in the east to the Pacific in the west.

Another long-distance rail trip would be to follow in the footsteps of an old friend and journey  right across Russia, on the Trans-Siberian Railway, and I'm sure given the time and the money, I could come up with quite a few more.

This is probably as good a place as any to end, and I would like to think I have inspired  you  to follow your dreams. As Mark Twain said, "Throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover". And if you do  decide to draw up a bucket list, remember "You created it to hold yourself accountable for what you wanted to do in life".


Anonymous said...

Lovely piece, wise sentiments.

Russtovich said...

Very well written Paul.

I don't have a bucket list as such either. Like you there are things I'd like to do given time and circumstances. And they too have changed over the years. But for now most of them are beer related. :)

While I've been to both Prague and Munich I'd love to go back, and do Bamburg as well (like you, thanks to the Beer Hunter shows). My youngest's girlfriend may be doing her Masters in Germany in the next few years. If that happens, he's taking a year off to be with her (he's a brewmaster so may take the time to gain some extra knowledge). And if that happens my wife is all for going for a visit, and doing some beer hunting! :)

As for the popularity these days of "hidden" treasures I think myself fortunate that I worked in a very remote part of the Rocky Mountains for 4 years. To give you an idea, it was a 90 minute flight north from Vancouver, BC; then a five hour drive up a highway with no cell coverage (we took a satellite phone in case of an accident); and then a 45 minute helicopter ride past at least a half dozen glaciers. Spectacular would about describe it.


PS - I'm going to try to add some photo links here to give you an idea.

Matt said...

I've got a vague idea of doing a central European beer trip which would include places I've been to before (Munich, Bamberg) and others that I haven't (Prague, Pilsen, Salzburg, Regensburg). I haven't really researched it yet, but I'm sure those countries superior train systems make it possible to do it within a week or so.

Paul Bailey said...

Thanks anonymous, glad you enjoyed the post.

Some really great photos there, Russ. Definitely spectacular and very wild as well. What was the job which took you to such a remote place?

Good luck with your proposed visit to Germany. I'm sure you will manage to visit Bamberg whilst you are there; especially as your son is a brew-master. We're going back there this coming May, and are really looking forward to it.

The central European train trip sounds feasible, Matt. You may find The Man in Seat Sixty-One site useful, as it is packed with useful information about European,and world-wide rail travel, and contains useful tips about buying the best tickets. The site author is an ex-railway man, and knows what he is talking about.

Cheers, Paul.

Russtovich said...

It was the construction of a mining camp that sadly was halted after 5 years. It's just too remote at present (they'd have to dig a 4km long tunnel through the mountains and then build another 100km or so of road to connect it to civilization).

Here's a link on Google Maps:,-131.4559652,17z/data=!4m5!3m4!1s0x54087023bfda6591:0x654535a0214a1fb5!8m2!3d57.1262126!4d-131.4537764

It's definitely spectacular scenery, and lots of snow to boot!

The snow level above all of the folks standing there is how far down they had to dig (approx. 20 feet). The snowfall that winter (2006/2007) was about 50 feet. My wife was in charge. She's the one with the smiley face beside the cook with the red bandanna.


Paul Bailey said...

Wow, I'm impressed. That's a serious amount of snow there - 50ft, is hard to imagine. The UK gets 5cm and the whole place grinds to a halt; as has been happening for the past few days.

What was the mining operation after? Must have been something pretty valuable to have gone to all that trouble.

Russtovich said...

"What was the mining operation after? Must have been something pretty valuable to have gone to all that trouble."

Copper and gold mostly. They've known about it since 1950. Heck you can see the copper literally on the side of some of the mountains as you fly by. But it's still just a wee bit too remote.

They had four camps spread out in the middle of nowhere along the planned road route (the plan was to start road building in both directions from all the camps) plus the camp at the highway and the camp at the final location. Here's one of the camps:

See that dark blue spot surrounded by snow just below the centre of the photo? (you can see a bridge to the right) That's the camp in Apr 08.

And that's a view from the camp itself in Aug 08. The three amigos are me, our youngest and my wife. We all worked on the project that year.

That's enough boring photos for now. :)


Paul Bailey said...

Thanks for sharing the photos Ross, they are not boring at all; especially for someone like me who's used to the rather "tame" landscape of southern England. I particularly like the family shot of the three of you at the foot of the glacier.

In case we don't communicate before, wishing you and your family a happy, healthy and prosperous New Year, full of excellent beer and plenty of friendly and welcoming pubs/bars. Paul.

Russtovich said...

Thanks Paul.

And a very Happy New Year with all that entails to you and your loved ones. :)