Travel

I have written travel articles for Euro-Correspondent in Brussels as well as for my own blogs. My favourite cities are Berlin and Shanghai. The most unusual place I have been is either Sumatra or Kaliningrad.

Below is a small selection of my travel-related writing.

STATE OF THE UNION

The US seems further away from Europe than ever before – in terms of attitude and mentality that is, even as the world shrinks thanks to global travel. Euro-correspondent sent Justin Toland to the heart of the USA, George W. Bush’s home state of Texas, to collect impressions on the state of the Union. (Part three, December 07, 2003)

After Houston, Dallas is Texas’s second largest city, with a population of around 1.2 million. Cultural tourism is an important part of Dallas’s future plans. The city’s most visited attraction is the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, the former Texas State Book Depository. It is from here that Lee Harvey Oswald fired his fateful shots at President John F. Kennedy. The exhibition takes visitors through the build-up to JFK’s visit to Dallas on November 22, 1963, followed by a detailed retelling of the day’s events and the aftermath.

Creating a museum about the assassination of a President is a tricky business – how to move the visitor without descending into sentimentality? How to address the questions surrounding the killing without coming across as conspiracy nuts or as perpetrators of (yet another) cover-up?The Sixth Floor Museum manages the latter successfully thanks to its attention to detail. Every movement of Oswald on the day of the assassination is covered. His background and his murder by Jack Ruby are examined, every conspiracy theory is addressed, the findings of every report into the assassination are explained. As for moving the visitor, there is no cheap emotion, just the sound of the raw hurt of Jackie Kennedy as she realizes her husband has been shot. That memory will stay in my mind for a long time. And, when just after hearing the tape of the moment of the shooting you round a display and see the corner window from which Oswald fired, gaze out of the big windows at the stretch of tarmac where a President was gunned down, and wonder who (if anyone?) was hidden behind the fence on the grassy knoll opposite, the enormity of what happened in this place truly hits you.

After a morning at the Sixth Floor Museum, you might feel like a little frivolity: a trip to the Southfork ranch, known to hundreds of millions as the home of the Ewing family in the TV series ‘Dallas’. Southfork is situated in Parker, a 40 minutes drive north from Dallas. Visitors can look round the house at their leisure, taking time to sit on the patio where Bobby and JR fought over breakfast, or on the balcony from which Kristen Shepard (who shot JR) fell to her death.

Only the exterior was used for filming, but the ranch’s owners have created rooms themed around the show’s characters. There is also a small museum about the show and props such as the gun that was used to shoot JR and Lucy Cooper Ewing’s wedding dress. The ranch is actually a lot smaller than it seemed on screen. The program makers used a range of tricks to give the impression of size: for instance, tying a rope to the actors when they were filming swimming pool scenes. As the actor swam, the film crew would pull on the rope so that they wouldn’t move, giving the impression that the pool was much larger than it really is.

Hip Austin

After Dallas and San Antonio, the fourth largest Texan city is Austin, the state capital, a remarkably verdant city despite its southerly latitude. It is also a very hip city – home to a large student population thanks to the University of Texas (UT), which has almost 49,000 students on its books each year, a little less than 10% of the city’s total population.This gives Austin a bohemian vibe somewhat at odds with the rest of Texas. The city was the setting for Richard Linklater’s seminal ‘generation X’ movie Slacker in the early 1990s. And while the pace of development has seen the closure of Quack’s, the café where much of the film’s action was set, Austin still prides itself on supporting local businesses and resisting the corporate machine: ‘Keep Austin Weird’ as the t-shirts say.

The city also proclaims itself ‘The live music capital of the world’ thanks to the South-by-Southwest (SXSW) music festival it hosts every March and the string of bands playing in bars along Sixth Street every night. One of the most vibrant night spots in the US, even on a Tuesday in October, Sixth Street was buzzing. We found ourselves in Touché, a bar that makes a very potent cocktail, the Flaming Dr Pepper. This consists of Amaretto and Bacardi 151 (the 75.5% proof stuff), which are ignited in a most spectacular fashion and dropped into a glass of beer. The resulting concoction does indeed taste like Dr Pepper, but with a mighty kick.

(Originally published by Euro-correspondent.com, November 2003).

CROSSING THE BRIDGE

Hungary’s former socialist showpiece prepares for EU accession, writes Justin Toland in a special to euro-correspondent.com from the town of Dunaújváros. (March 4, 2004)

The town of Dunaújváros, 65 km south of Budapest, has a short, but fascinating history. In 1950, as part of the communist regime’s policy of forced industrialisation, the Danube Iron Works (Dunaferr) was built within the administrative area of the small village of Dunapentele (1949 population: 3,949). The best workers from existing steel and other metal plants were sent to work at Dunaferr. Around it a new, modern socialist town was rapidly built, largely in accordance with plans drawn up by architect and designer Tibor Weiner.

According to Dunaújváros – A History in Five Decades, by Balint Csatari, Judit and Ferenc Csefko, and Gyorgy Csongar, the housing estates of the new town, built in the Socialist Realist style, were designed so that their facilities (kindergartens, schools and commercial units) could be reached within four to five minutes.

The propaganda opportunities offered by the creation of the new town virtually from scratch were not lost on Hungary’s leaders, who were keen to pay tribute to their Soviet masters. In November 1951, supposedly in response to the spontaneous demand of 14,000 signatories to a document, the new town was renamed Sztálinváros (“Stalin Town”). As an exhibition taking place at Budapest’s Galeria Centralis until the end of March 2004 reveals, the Hungarian town was one of six in the Eastern Bloc (temporarily) renamed in honour of ‘the grey blur’, the others being Volgograd, Russia; Varna, Bulgaria; Katowice, Poland; Brasov, Romania; and Eisenhuttenstadt, (East) Germany.

The 1950s was a time of rapid development for Sztálinváros, as more heavy industry such as a concrete panels factory, was moved in. The population quickly reached 40,000, even after the town had its ‘special political status’ removed in 1953.

During the 1956 Uprising, the name Dunapentele was briefly restored. It wasn’t until 1961 that the Khrushchev-inspired programme of ‘De-Stalinisation’ reached the town: In November of that year, Sztálinváros became Dunaújváros (“Danube new town”).

However, attitudes to the town, ambiguous even during the ‘heroic age’ of the 1950s, hardened. Many people from other parts of Hungary developed an intense dislike of this socialist showpiece. Conversely, as one resident explains in Dunaújváros – A History in Five Decades, “What identity people developed, they developed it largely for spite against the negative attitude in the rest of the country against Dunaújváros.”

By the 1980s, the town’s topography was changing. The growth of white-collar employment led to the emergence of suburban family homes on its outskirts. Today, more than one-third of the town’s active population are white-collar workers.

Yet, unlike many other sites of heavy industry in Eastern Europe, Dunaújváros managed to survive the transition to a market economy, though not without difficulties. Despite the establishment in 1997 of an industrial park that has attracted an Aikawa components factory and a logistics centre for Triumph underwear, the steel works still dominates the town, both physically and emotionally. Dunaferr employs 10,000 people (making it Hungary’s eighth largest employer), but it has also made heavy losses in recent years. Last autumn, the state privatization agency, APV, offered a controlling stake in Dunaferr. A consortium led by Ukraine’s Industrial Union of Donbass (in partnership with Swiss trading firm, Duferco), won the privatisation tender, after having agreed to pay 440 million Hungarian Forints (Euro 1.7 million) for a 79.48 percent stake in the company. The Donbass consortium promised to invest more than HUF 100 billion in total in Dunaferr over the next five years.

The recent travails of Dunaferr have also affected the town in other ways. Sport is a source of much local pride: Dunaújváros has become known as ‘the sports capital of the nation’ thanks in part to the success of the steel works’ sports club. The women’s handball team are former European champions, and the current champions of Hungary. The Dunaferr SE football team won the Hungarian league championship in 2000. This prompted the municipal authorities to offer HUF 20 million of support for the upgrading of the football stadium. Unfortunately, affected by the financial difficulties of its parent company, Dunaferr SE folded early last year. So, Dunaújváros has a lovely stadium, but nobody to play in it.

Another of the town’s showpiece projects, a Catholic Cathedral, is also currently out of service. The building has been completed, but there is no money to finish the interior.

“Dunaújváros needs investment,” admitted my host. He has lived in the town since 1963 when his parents, both teachers, moved there. And since 1977, he has been employed at what is today the Dunapack paper and packaging plant, another survivor of the town’s industrial age that is now under foreign (in this case Austrian) ownership.

Forty percent of the town’s current population is under 30. Although unemployment is below the national average, many young people choose to leave Dunaújváros. The migration balance of the town is minus 12.1 per 1,000 inhabitants.

It is hoped that new infrastructure investments being made under the Hungarian government’s Szechenyi Plan will secure the town’s long-term prosperity. A new bridge over the Danube and a motorway link to Budapest are both due to be completed in the next couple of years. Once this is done, the town’s leaders believe Dunaújváros can become a logistical hub for the entire Transdanubia region of Hungary. Dunaújváros could also be in line to be linked up to a future pan-European motorway network.

Perhaps tourism too could be a future source of income. The town possesses one of the largest and best preserved stocks of Socialist Realist architecture. This is now protected and a source of pride, even if the era that produced it is not.

Having learned to accept their heritage, the people of Dunaújváros are proud too that theirs is now a ‘real town’ (McDonald’s, Tesco and all). Those that I spoke with are looking forward to accession to the EU. They believe that the benefits of joining the Union, particularly in terms of the opportunities it will afford their children, outweigh any drawbacks.

(Originally published by Euro-correspondent.com, February 2004).

IN THE LAND OF AQUA AND TRENTEMØLLER

It’s a Danish special this month. I’ve just got back from “the happiest country in the world” (part business, part pleasure) and here are a few observations…Let’s kick off with a verbatim transcript of a text message sent to a friend last week: “The music in this town is terrible: danish schlager pop, commercial trance, happy hardcore cover versions of bon jovi. And Peter Andre. Wake up aalborg!” The gateway to Northern Jutland is a very pleasant small city, but if you are looking for cutting edge music (or just decent commercial tunes) look elsewhere. Dr. Alban’s Sing Hallelujah is about as good as it gets on the packed bar street Jomfru Ane Gde. I spotted a some posters for a tech-house night and a couple of punk gigs, none of which were taking place during my brief stay.

Further south in Denmark’s second city, Aarhus, things are looking a little better. I headed to Gyngen, a small venue on the northern edge of the city centre. This cultural centre puts on a wide range of music by mostly up-and-coming local acts (although later this month it’s one of the sites for Elektronisk JazzJuice, a jazz meets-electronica-meets-impro-meets-noise festival headlined by Cluster and Shackleton no less). The night I was there there was a young guy rapping about revolution in Danish (pretty sick self-produced beats). Not sure having your parents show up to video the show is quite so ‘revolutionary’ – seemed very Danish somehow though – no wonder they are such a well-adjusted people! After a short break, teenage emo punks Bad Addiction took to the stage. Trading more on enthusiasm than skill, they were a little callow for my tastes, but, hey, the kids liked it!

Aarhus is also currently hosting an effing great exhibition of music videos called Music To See. It’s at the art museum, Aros, and includes works by “five of the most innovative and experimental image-makers within the contemporary music video genre”: Michel Gondry, Chris Cunnigham, Anton Corbijn, Spike Jonze and Mark Romanek. There’s something slightly weird about sitting in a dark room with a bunch of strangers to carefully appreciate the artistry of Windowlicker or Come to Daddy. But hey, it’s cool! While I enjoyed the Cunningham, Corbijn and Jonze vids, I couldn’t really get with Mark Romanek. I mean I dig what he does, I just can’t stand most of the performers he works with (particularly those useless dicks Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Nine Inch Nails).

The same can’t be said for Michel Gondry – brilliant images illustrating great pieces of music. As well as the infamous White Stripes, Daft Punk and Bjork videos, it was instructive to see Gondry’s fabulous promo for Jean-Francois Coen’s 1993 single La Tour de Pise – Paris will never look the same again…

…And as for Brussels – it’s probably only in Matonge, the city’s predominantly Congolese district, that you could find a music store that doubles as a hairdresser. “Chez le Professeur de Francais” at 9 Rue Francart is home to both Planete Music (where I just picked up a tasty CD/DVD double pack by Ferre-Gola – ‘Sens Interdit’) and to Salon Clarisse (Coiffure Dame). An interesting solution to the fiscal challenge of running a record store. I can see it now: Phonica-Pedicure…

(Blog post: May 2008).