Once upon a time a fire-breathing dragon . . .

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Once upon a time, a fire-breathing dragon, with taste for young female flesh, lived in a cave in Krakow according to Wincenty Kadłubek (1161-1223), Bishop of Cracow and historian of Poland.

When nearly all the city’s young girls had been eaten, the King promised his daughter’s hand in marriage to anyone who could kill the beast. The legend reports the Wawel Dragon was finally slain by a cobbler’s apprentice who fed the creature a roasted lamb which he had stuffed with sulphur and hot spices.

After the dragon had devoured the tasty sacrifice a powerful thirst hit him so he went to the river to drink. He drank and drank and drank but became even more parched and continued to drink until, so full of water, he burst.

As with all good stories, on his wedding day, to Princess Wanda, the poor apprentice lad was fittingly renamed, Prince Krak, Dragon Slayer.

Today, the dragon’s den, in the 12 million year old cave at the base of Wawel Hill, and a fire-spouting dragon statue, are both part of Krakow’s literary trail which celebrates its status as the world’s seventh UNESCO City of Literature.

Wawel Hill, home to the Royal Castle, is a favourite setting for many a national myth and legend and when I first saw it, on a grey monochrome morning I could well believe the stories of supernatural powers held by a mysterious chakra discovered there in the 1st century.

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Dunedin (New Zealand) knows, as now the eighth city of literature, that to become a UNESCO City of Literature, there are several requirements in terms of the quality and diversity of initiatives. They include the role of literature in its broadest sense in the everyday lives of the city’s inhabitants, a range of festivals and literary events, and an abundance of bookshops, libraries and other institutions involved with books and literary heritage.

Some of Krakow’s claims for being considered a literary capital were that the first Polish language books were published there in the 16th century, and that it was the first Polish city to hold scriptoriums, libraries and printing houses.

As book lover, in Poland at the end of the tourist season, I was disappointed not to be able to take one of the monthly, guided literary walks. It was even more disappointing that despite two emails to the literary and tourism websites I received no response to my request to hire a guide for an individual tour of the literary hotspots. It’s very easy to overpromise and under deliver. To add to the difficulty the tourism office in the city square did not have the brochure-map either – they sent me to another office where I was given their last English one.
With sixty-one points of interest detailed on the map, they cover historical sites; literary addresses, libraries and bookstores, literary cafes, literature in public places and, Nowa Huta, a 1949-built city for the workers. Until this year, this area was home to the annual Krakow Book Fair, Poland’s most important meeting of readers and some 500 Polish publishers. Portrayed as an ideal city in Stalin-era literature, it has been the setting for many poems and human interest stories. Alongside the book fair, the Conrad Festival takes place – a prestigious literary event, it’s considered one of the most noteworthy occasions in this part of Europe and has attracted crowds of readers for many years.

Outside the old city wall, the moat has been filled in, providing a ring of green – Planty Park. As well as monuments to writers and other artists, it is also home to dozens of benches honouring writers with connections to the city. One easily recognised was Thomas Keneally, author of Schindler’s Ark, the 1982 Booker Prize-winning novel which was later adapted to film for Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. QR barcodes on all seats, helpfully link the visitor to virtual collections of text and recordings of the specific author. Of course Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory is on the self-guided walk too.

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There are close to 80 bookstores and almost 30 antiquarian bookshops in the city, with one of the buildings in Market Square housing a book shop continually since 1610. I walked to the Massolit Bookstore hoping to talk with one of the three ex-pat owners about the literary meetings, events and political debates which are held there. They were not available so I did what time-rich travellers do and just sat, enjoying coffee, a chocolate brownie, the international newspapers and the old world ambience.

In the Main Market Square (where you can spend hours) every hour, on the hour, a bugle plays from the four points of the compass in the high tower of St. Mary’s Basilica, and this too has a literary connection. It was immortalised in the first book by Eric P Kelly, The Trumpeter of Krakow, which won the 1929 Newbery Medal as the year’s most distinguished contribution to American children’s literature. An American journalist, academic and author of children’s books, he was briefly a lecturer at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow.

Interestingly too, Krakow is part of the International Cities of Refuge Network and, in the Villa Decius, one of the Renaissance complex sites of literary and cultural salons, a refuge is provided for persecuted writers.

Finally, two Nobel Prize Winners in Literature had their homes in Krakow: poet Czesław Miłosz (1980) who returned after many years in exile, and poet essayist Wisława Szymborska (1996) until her death in 2012: I only wish I had been able to get a deeper insight into this walkable city’s past, present, and undoubtedly bright literary future.

This story first appeared in the Otago Daily Post, Dunedin, New Zealand.

Religion, atheists, books and travel

On my recent trip I spent the 14-hours in the air from Wellington, New Zealand to Kuching, Sarawak (East Malaysia, Borneo) reading Alain de Botton’s book HEATHROW DIARY and despite spending many times in airports, it made me aware of nuances I had not perhaps been so conscious of.IMG_3278758846670

Then, instead reading one of the many books on old Malaysia and Borneo on my Kobo, I returned to one already started on my e-reader, RELIGION FOR ATHEISTS. a non believers guide to the uses of religion, also by de Botton.

Interestingly this has also tied in with my travels here, and resonates with past travels.

A kiwi for many generations, both maternal and paternal lines escaping the Irish famines, the Scottish clearances, and the Cornish tin mine closings of the 1800s (in today’s terms both economic migrants and refugees) the kiwi way of life absolutely seems the norm. That is, I live in a secular country where in the recent census nearly 50% of us declared” No religion” on the form: a number that would be much higher if not for our migrants who of course bring their religions with them.

During these travels, like many other – such as in Europe, Israel, Southern USA and many other places – I am aware if how religion plays such a huge part in people’s lives outside New Zealand, an awareness made more acute by the many Chinese temples here in Sarawak and the fact that Ramadan has just started.

Have you read either books?

Have they, or any other books on the topics, influenced you with your travel observations?

For me they have both just made me more conscious of both travel and religion and like local food, remember what an integral part it is with travel – no wonder I’m a passionate nomad, aging disgracefully as I move around the world.

Another new book for nature lovers – all homes should have a copy

COLLINS FIELD GUIDE TO NEW ZEALAND WILDLIFE                       by Terence Lindsey and Rod Morris

Here is another new book for nature lovers and with many oddities in New Zealand’s fauna all kiwi homes should have a copy.

  • Did you know there are no island groups anywhere in the world comparable to New Zealand in size, latitude, climate and isolation.
  • And, of the world’s total land area, only about 0.17 per cent lies under the New Zealand flag, but about one per cent of all known land animals in the world live within our borders.
  • This is made up of around 10,000 species of insects, 2000 spiders, nearly 300 snails, and perhaps a further couple of thousand of all other groups combined.

This book is a completely updated edition and an extensive guide to well over 400 species of New Zealand fauna, including both native and  introduced species.

Each entry succinctly describes both habits and habitats, distribution, classification, breeding patterns, food and recognition tips to aid amateurs – like me – with identifying a creature.  It also includes the latest research findings and changes in classification and nomenclature that have occurred in the past 10 years, along with many new photographs.

It seems to me, far too few people — New Zealanders and ‘foreigners’ alike — are aware of just how extraordinary New Zealand wildlife is. For any animal enthusiast with a global perspective, it’s right up there on the billboard with its name in lights along with Hawaii, the Galapagos and Madagascar.” says Terrence Lindsay (Zoologist and ornithologist) 

Rod Morris’s stunning photographic work has also received widespread international acclaim. Previously a producer with Wild South, he is now a freelance natural history photographer.

I know I will spend a lot of time with this book and am sure you will too – all NZ homes need a copy of this!

(See  this post – in this blog – for a new travellers guide  for NZ birds too)

E-books have killed paper books – yeah right!

E-books have killed paper books ‘they’ say. I say ‘yeah right’.  And, something new has happened to show we avid readers  are right – it will be a long time, if ever, that paper will not be used in books.  So, what is it?

The Dutch started it, the Spanish, the French, and the British soon followed . . . and now it’s in New Zealand.

I could start a what is it?  ‘Bigger than a bread-box? Smaller than a box of tissues?”  but these are not the worlds that would help you solve the puzzle.

Try words like paper books, hardback, e-books, Kindles or Kobo, slips easily into your pocket, weighs less that 145 grams, and you would be nearer to the subject.

Then, add words like save trees, extremely thin paper, read from top to bottom,  flip-up, and there you have it: something very new in books.

So what is this puzzle that’s not a puzzle anymore?

It’s the “flipback” book, which seems it originated in Holland, (2009)  and which you hold vertically and flip the pages up as you read. No more turning the pages ‘over’ just flip it UP. The other revolutionary (or is it evolutionary) idea is the spine is made so that the book can lie open for reading without requiring a hand to hold it open (no broken spines either) great for reading  on the go especially in transport, while holding on so you don’t fall.

Flipbacks, published by Hodder & Stoughton, were launched in  New Zealand by Hachette NZ, (July 2011)  I’m sure as I write, these are spreading around the world,  an ideal gift for a traveller. Perfect for planes, waiting in queues for boarding, ticket buying and all those other places we have learnt to grab valuable reading moments.

So when others are talking about the demise of the paper book – here is a new hard-cover book, completely original, and a useful adjunct to my reading pile – offering me just another way of reading.

So, if you are thinking of buying me a book for my travels – I’d be happy with any other 100 titles already out ( 11 so far in NZ, more out in Sept and November)

See what our own Bookman says on Beattie’s book blog

cockroaches in the kitchen

”Staff Wanted’’ a sign says and on the spur of the moment I enquire – after all, it’s written in English.

I’ve been in Athens for two hours, a city I’d vowed never to return to because of the heat, dirt and noise.  However, after three days on a ferry from Israel, expecting to join a Greek yacht in Athens and that no longer needs staff, I need a new plan. I’ve been travelling for so long that even at fifty-something, young lovers, navel piercing and tattoos seem normal. Before I succumb to the piercing and tattoos, I require a reality check and a touch of ordinary life – well as ordinary as new places can be.

‘Can you cook?’ I’m asked the next morning.  I think of three kids who never starved, a brief cooking course in Thailand, and my kiwi ‘can do’ attitude, and tell him. ‘Yes, I can cook’.

Five minutes later, with six long loaves under my arm, I’m in the café-bar of the hotel: I have a job – I am the manager, cook, cleaner, waiter, bar-staff and dishwasher of the cafe in a budget hotel – two minutes walk from Symtagma Square: in the centre of an Athens that’s preparing for ‘the games’.

I’m shown the breakfast menu – the evening menu will be up to me – the refrigerator is unlocked and the doors are opened for the first time in six weeks. It’s my first day of five weeks working 11-hour days for a Greek rival to the TV show ‘Fawlty Towers’.

“Write down anything you need for the kitchen and I’ll get it,” I’m told. In the beginning I get most of what I need, but slowly my shopping list is ignored and never does it leave the kitchen for reference when the sporadic shopping is done. This means I often have a double supply of lettuces but no rice, olives for the Greek salad but no feta cheese, pasta but no tomatoes.  Daily I juggle as I conjure up satisfying meals for the staff as well as creating a menu of at least three or four choices for the guests.

Forward planning does not seem to be part of the Greek psyche, well, not with the locals I worked with. Despite ordering, often days in advance, drinks or food, it was not until the fridge was empty that another carton of water, beer, or block of feta cheese is delivered.

Cockroaches drive me crazy in the kitchen. From ant-size to giant-size they can quickly disappear down cracks nearly invisible to the human eye.  Two favourite hiding places are the potato bag and the onion basket. Morning and night, before the guests arrive and after they leave I spray the beasties. Lift the basket, bang it down and as the zillions of them scurry for cover I do the cockroach stomp and spray maniacally. The stomp, a dance I’ve invented to stop them running over my feet and up my legs, is the second line of defence and slowly, day by day the population is reduced. Another step in the dance is the basket bang; this dislodges those hiding in the cane breadbaskets so I don’t deliver creepy-crawlies along with the fresh bread. The two steps, the bang and the stomp, are often performed in combination with a shudder of disgust. I push Buddhist precepts of not killing to the back of my mind as I attend to the battle of the cockroaches. Books, knife-blades, salt shaker and a bottle of soy sauce are all used successfully to dispatch cockroaches to wherever dead roaches go. My sandals, the tip jar, fry pan, coke and beer bottles; whatever is at hand is used to deal to the fast moving critters.

It’s August and the heat is amazing; the two gas rings from which I create the culinary delights add a few more degrees. Finally a fan is installed, four metres from the floor, with a 10-centimetre pull-cord: I need to climb a stepladder to turn it on.

During quiet times I stand on the balcony and watch Athens in action: on the balcony a deep fryer has sat for months, half-full of rancid oil. For the past three afternoons we have had unseasonably heavy rain. The vat fills rapidly and the floating oil trickles over the top and runs towards the balcony edge and unsuspecting pedestrians below. I notice it at the last minute and stop the flow with a blue cotton tablecloth then remove three large jugs of the water and oil mixture.  despite this the fryer is left sitting in the sun, growing even more rank; waiting for the next rain and another bid to escape over the edge.

Soon it’s time to move on so I empty the tip jar for the final time and go shopping with my squirreled away tips. I buy a silver necklace and bracelet along with a pure white suit that is totally unsuitable for backpacking and hop on a plane to London, ready for the next adventure.

This is a portion from the book Naked in Budapest: travels with a passionate nomad by Heather Campbell Hapeta, and which can be bought HERE.  ( See reviews  here)