Category Archives: Places

Desert – Stories from Unnamed Places No.01

P. had gone to the village because she was told it would be good for her. The desert air. The sea breeze. The walks along the coast or into the hills. The quiet of the nights, far from the city, beneath big skies filled with stars.

That was what she was told. What she found was a village a few kilometres inland from the sea, tucked beneath a series of low hills that had been hollowed out over the decades by a mine that still stood, bare and abandoned, looking down on the cluster of whitewashed houses and sandy-coloured ruins beneath. The village existed because of the mine, but the mine had closed years before and at the north end of the village the ruins of the houses, taverns, shops and social clubs that had once been the focus of life above ground were closed off behind high fences to prevent curious souls from endangering themselves inside the skeleton-frames of the abandoned buildings.

After the mine stopped operations, the village hung on, home to a motley assortment of locals with nowhere to go and a blow-in crowd of alternative types who set up camp in their vans or the few miner’s cottages that had not succumbed to the salty, dry air. The miners themselves had scattered. Some headed north, to the city and the factory floor. Others had crossed an ocean in search of a future above ground in another country.

Over time the village would attract more visitors, who would find accommodation in new buildings at the southern end of the main street. These rows of slender, white houses looked up the hillside towards the new botanical gardens that had been planted on the desert scrubland between the village and the the ruins of the mine. Botanists came for the plants. Artists came for the light. Birdwatchers for the rare species that could be found nowhere else on the continent. And the sick and afflicted came to try and get better.

They always had. On the day P. moved into the small house that looked out across the botanical garden towards the volcanic hills beyond, she found a map of the area on the coffee table. It detailed the towns and villages, the farmhouses and the beaches, as well as the names of the hills and the walking routes that ran between them. One led out from the end of her road, skirting the botanical gardens until it reached a river, which it followed until the path turned once more and crossed a ridge between two hills, dropping down into a high, hanging valley. A solitary building was marked on the map, with a name: Healer’s Cottage.

For the first few days P. did little but sit out on her terrace, listening to the sound of corn buntings hidden in the scrub across the street and watching for the small lizards that liked to dart between gaps in the stone wall outside her house. She would sleep through the hottest part of the day and in the late afternoon walk into the village, to browse in the small shop and grab a bite to eat in the bar on the main square.

In the shop she found a dusty guide to the region that had been published in a language she could understand. It was a decade old, but as she sat outside the bar with a glass of beer and began to read, she realised not much had changed in the intervening years. From the guide she learned more about the Healer’s Cottage, about how the Healer had lived there, impossibly, from before the mine was built until after the last of the miners had left. She read about how people would travel from across the country to the village and then follow the stony path along the river for consultations, and the herbal remedies they would return home with. And how the Healer’s Cottage had been abandoned when, overcome by solitude and too much of one of her own remedies, the Healer finally lost her mind. The story was that she climbed down into the hill, through one of the mine openings, and was never seen again.

The next morning P. followed the hiking trail out from the end of her road. The path skirted the botanical gardens until it met the river. On the map the river was marked in brilliant blue, but in reality it was dry and stony, and it looked like it had been a long time since any water had flowed over these dusty rocks. P. kept walking, ever higher into the hills. Above her she could see the mine road, carved out of the hillside and wide enough for the ghosts of two articulated lorries to pass with space to spare, but the path to the Healer’s Cottage was narrow and rutted between bushes of prickly pears, and she had to keep her eyes down so as not to trip. Higher she climbed, and as she approached the ridge there were moments she had to use her hands to steady herself, scrambling over thick, red stones.

At the ridge she could look back, across the landscape to where it met the rolling surf of the sea, and forward, down into the hanging valley. The Healer’s Cottage was at the bottom, the track snaking its way down the steep slope to four crumbling walls, none more that three or four bricks high and barely distinguishable from the rocky ground around. Carefully P. made her way down, until she reached the cottage. Now there was no view but the sides of the valley and the blue sky above. No wind could reach her and the air was heavy. She could smell lavender and the constant hum of insects filled her ears.

It has been said that hikers in the hills have heard the sound of a woman’s voice from deep inside the many mine openings to be found on the hillside…

From where she sat on the tumbledown walls of the Healer’s Cottage, P. shouted as loud as she could. What she shouted, she would not remember, but the feeling would stay with her. As she began to climb back up, to the ridge with its view of the rest of the world, she knew it was true what she had been told: this place would be good for her.

Words: Paul Scraton
Picture: Katrin Schönig

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Notes from a Bohemian village

At the bottom of the garden, outside the half-timbered house on the old village lane, the stream rushes over pebbles worn smooth by centuries of continuous flow. From here it enters the woods, cutting deep gorges through the sandstone landscape and flowing beneath frozen ponds until it joins a bigger stream, and then a river, and then finally the Elbe and its long journey to the North Sea, on that short stretch where one bank is Germany and the other is the Czech Republic. This stream at the bottom of the garden does not look up to much, but it explains the village.

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Not far from here is an old trade route, for moving salt and grain through the forest between Lausitz, Saxony and Bohemia. Where the old ways crossed the stream, settlements were established. In the village, the business was wood and textiles, and one of the oldest glassworks in Europe, founded in the 14th century. Along the track that followed the path of the stream, houses were built, stretched out in four directions from a central square. Many of the village houses are wooden constructions, dating back to the 1700s. Others are more recent, with the distinctive style of a long lost empire that once stretched from the Balkans to Bohemia. At the start of the twentieth century, over two thousand people called this village home. They worked in the textile industry, and at the glassworks, but next hundred years left their mark. Different flags, different capitals. Ideologies imposed from far beyond the banks of the stream. In the cemetery of the Gothic church, a memorial to the 49 victims of WWI. In the upper village, a memorial to the mass grave of 22 who succumbed to a death march at the end of the next war. Outside the factory, two flags fly. The Czech tricolour and the European stars. The lorries lined up outside a modern-looking warehouse have Danish plates. The population of the village is no longer fixed. It swells and falls, with the season and the days of the week. I wonder what the local phrase for ‘up from Prague’ is, but on a Tuesday morning in February, there’s no-one around to ask.

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Memories of a city: The afterlife of the Berlin Wall

This morning, as I rode the U-Bahn south with my daughter on her way to school, we passed beneath the old dividing line in the city at Bernauer Straße almost at the moment the news headline flashed up on the television screens in the train carriage. As of today, the Berlin Wall has been history for more days than it ever existed; a site of memory longer than it was a dividing line written in concrete and defended by guards with guns. For 28 years, two months and 27 days it surrounded West Berlin and split the city in two; from that August day when barbed wire was rolled out along city streets to that November night when Berliners danced in the shadow of the Brandenburg Gate. The debate about what should be done with this symbol of a divided Germany began the very next morning.

Most of it was quickly removed. Memorials were erected to those who died attempting to cross the border and to other momentous events during those 28 years. The route of the Wall became the Mauerweg or Berlin Wall Trail, a waymarked hiking and cycling route running for 160 kilometres through the very heart of the city and out around the edge. Parts of the former security strip became parks and other public spaces. Some sections were gradually filled in as the city once more grew together. Yet other sections were returned to the forest, no longer offering any barrier to the deer and wild boar who cross the once-more invisible dividing line at will. In the past few years wolves have been spotted within Berlin’s city limits, for the first time in two centuries.

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Allowing the walls to talk, Erfurt

On the top floor of the exhibition, arrows guided visitors from the lift and through a heavy metal door. To the right: the guard’s office, still fitted with a small desk, a telephone and a seat. To the left: a corridor, floor polished by the footsteps of countless guards, remand prisoners, democracy protestors and today, visitors to the exhibition. It had been left as was. Exposed pipes and padded cell doors. Bars on the windows. Strip lights and a sink. The cell doors were open, but otherwise this was the view the guards would have had from their command post. Weak winter light shined in from the opposite end of the hall.

From the founding of the German Democratic Republic in 1949 to the dramatic events surrounding the fall of the Berlin Wall just over forty years later, the remand prison of the Ministry of State Security (Stasi) stood on Andreasstraße in Erfurt, within sight of the main cathedral square and the gingerbread half-timbered houses of the picturesque Old Town. Over those years some five thousand people were held there, awaiting trial for crimes that for the most part amounted to little more than political opposition to the GDR regime. A banner, requesting that the government abide by the human rights agreements of Helsinki. A satirical slogan, spray-painted on the wall. That was enough to land you in these cells. Men upstairs. Women downstairs.

After trials, prisoners would be transferred to the main prisons. For his Helsinki human rights banner, Gerd-Peter Leube was sentenced to three years and six months for “anti-government incitement”. For their slogan painted on the wall, six teenagers (Grit Ferber, Ulrich Jadke, Holm Kirsten, Jörn Luther, Thomas Onißeit and Andreas Tillmans) spent up to six months in prison for the crime of “hooliganism”. Continue reading

Return to the Black Mountain

It is good to be here again.

That’s what I think, but only once we have reached the top of the slippy slope. It is probably not the most sensible way to climb the mountain, but the other option is closed to us. A farmer’s gate has been moved. The alternative blocked off. Whose land is this anyway? That has long been the question on the Black Mountain.

Two years ago we walked in mist. Up the slippy slope. Across the Hatchet Field. To Terry’s cairn and along the path. Belfast was down there, somewhere, but we only caught the odd glimpse. A ghostly apparition as the cloud cleared. For a second. Two. A quick click of the camera shutter and the invisible city was gone again.

Today is different. Today the sun shines as we catch a cab to the last house in West Belfast, to the very spot where the city meets the mountain. Urb meets Rus. When we reach Hatchet Field, and hear the stories of the family who used to live up there – thick walls, great views and long walks to school – we can not only see the city laid out before us, but all the way to Scotland. Continue reading

The Cathedral of the North

A Berlin story:

Outside the church a young woman pushes her bike up the cobblestoned incline that leads from the street to the door, passing by flower beds cut back for the winter and a slender post covered in words and images that, if you press on one of the small, silver buttons, will tell you the history of this building and its surroundings in a number of different languages. She doesn’t have time, and anyway, she has heard them before. Her bike is laden with shopping bags – in the basket and hanging from the handlebars – and she needs to get home. These are not supplies picked up on this square around the church; she had to ride to the supermarket and push her bike back. There is a shop on the corner, its neon sign suggesting you might find stacks of fresh produce in crates on the uneven pavement beneath. But look below and the pavement is bare. No fruit today or any day. Behind the windows, headless dummies model elegant clothes.

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The wild white horses

All night the wind and the rain hammered at the windows and shook the walls, the story of the storm creeping into dreams and half-awake thoughts. The view down and across the field as it started to get light was of a sea beyond the cliffs that was thrashing and churning, banging off the rocks to throw explosions of spray high against the overcast sky. For a moment the sun came out, the patch of blue sky closing again almost as quickly as it opened.

We walked out, down the headland path towards the coves at the bottom of the island where we have rock-pooled and swum off the rocks, built fires on the sands or spied birds and sea rescue helicopters off the rocks. Now there was just water, a violent, flailing mass of water, swelling and crashing, the huge waves making the normally impressive cliffs seem small in comparison. The wind stung and the spray soaked us, leaving us with a strong, salty taste on the lips. One wave caught the wind and, although we were a long way from the edge of the headland, soaked us like a bucket of cold water had been tossed across the path. It was impossible to look into the wind without it hurting your face and eyes.

Beyond the rocks, the sea was like something out of folklore, like one of those vengeful seas that rises up to swallow whole a town of gluttons and hedonists after nature cannot take the debasement any more.

Down on the main beach there was no main beach, the high tide and the storm lifting the waves up to the very top of the shingle and onto the dunes. Seaweed had landed high in the grass, along with plastic debris – bottles and face-cream pots, half a petrol canister – that suggested the seas and oceans had finally had it with us dumping all our crap and had decided to throw it back at us where we walked. The spray had been joined by rain now. At the end the beach, a family stood a little bit too close to the waves. The dad took the kids by the arm and pulled them back, away from the seventh wave. The sea was not to be messed with.

A friend from university was staying at the next village up the island. Back inside – soggy clothes hanging from door frames and in the shower – I saw her videos posted on social media, the waves rolling straight in off the sea and crashing over the beach wall onto the street beyond. She told me the road to her village had been closed off. It seemed odd that we could still write to each other in the middle of the storm. The rain had closed in now. It was no longer possible to look down across the field and beyond the headland. Nothing but a grey wall. But the wild white horses were still there, the fury not yet exhausted.

Words & Pictures: Paul Scraton