Even my football team is at the bottom of the league

My home team, Hull City, have twice competed in the English Premier League, and twice through incompetence been relegated. The team is now working hard to get relegated to the third league. Conceding a 93rd minute goal against a relegation challenger on Saturday sums it up.

As Douglas Adams might have said, “but that’s as nothing compared to Brexit” (he actually likened the dimensions of space with a walk down the road to the chemist/pharmacy). Talking of which, if the incompetence of the government and the paralysis of the UK Parliament persists, there will be no point in walking to the pharmacy because there will be no drugs. Or the supermarket, for that matter, as there will not be any food. It is coming a bit of a cliche on Twitter to say things like, “I cannot believe I am saying this in 2018” in the context of food and drug shortages.

But of course, we are.

Not in my lifetime have I experienced the British political system so dysfunctional. I was well aware – if not of voting age – when the IMF bailed out the UK economy in the 1970s. I remember the limited excitement of the 3-Day week and power cuts. We had a gas fire with an electrical timer without which the fire would not work. How nuts was that? I lived through Thatcher, the miners’ strike. I was there with the million others trying to prevent war in Iraq. But I never felt that the polity was in crisis, only that I was on the wrong side. This time is different.

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Camel tries to make its people more palatable?

I have been reporting that Camel’s “Do your Thing” campaign was all about putting some of the most unpleasant looking people on a poster smoking a cigarette – or threatening to. The campaign slogan could just as well have been “bollocks to you”.

The latest that I have found seems to be softening that with a woman sporting flowing long hair and who is either vigorously shaking her head or being confronted by a wind machine. Either way, “smoking is deadly” as the warning at the bottom maintains.

Tandem Tour 2018 Part 5: Dürnstein to Klosterneuburg/Vienna

I reluctantly observe that very large cruisers have replaced the barges along the Danube. They have their own particular bulky cargo that is decanted at points along the way. The towns and villages adjacent to the berths have spikes of activity as the visitors arrive en masse. So it was with Dürnstein, across the river from our campsite at Rossatz. It looked gorgeous at night illuminated, but the central area at peak time is congested. There are gift shops galore. And plenty of attempts at flogging of the local wine. We did find a bakery for breakfast, but even parking the tandem safely and out of the way was a bit of a task. Incidentally, just a little way out is a cyclists’ cafe, probably a better option.

We’d also been advised that the path on the north side was really nice. We can confirm that the south is probably better through Mautern rather than Krems. Krems has a historic western approach, but once the path reaches the prison (which riders cannot miss), then it is downhill from there. The path is incoherent and actually quite difficult to follow. We took the first post-Krems opportunity to cross the river back to the southern path over a relatively new bridge in the direction of Wagram where the cycle track is built under the roadway (right).

We think we were right to revert to the southern path. We found ourselves in a riverside restaurant at Traismauer, suitable for lunch. Then all very quiet until Tulln which is quite a resort. There is a camping site, a live stage floating on the river and a multi-activity park. As well as a bakery, naturally. It is also, as we noted, at the end of the S-Bahn to-and-from Vienna. It might not be a bad place to base oneself. However, we decided to go further to Klosterneuburg which is very much a suburb of Vienna. Another 20kms further and, by this time, we were feeling it. But Klosterneuburg has a great camping site, frequent trains to Vienna, and its own very particular brand of restaurants and cafes (including an icecream parlour where ridiculous quantities of icecream are loaded onto a way-too-small wafer cornet). It is fun to watch and delicious to eat. But impractical.

We took two days out in Vienna. The tickets by train to – and around – Vienna currently cost €9.30 (taking in trains, Underground, tram and bus). We visited a cafe that we had failed to get in during previous visits; namely Harvest (above left). We also visited the Jewish quarter and came across Rachel Whiteread’s holocaust memorial (right). A signature concrete construct with books to symbolise both knowledge and, of course, the Nazi penchant for book burning. It is fitting and just-about works. All of the Nazi death camps are listed around each of the four sides. Chastening.

Vienna is truly a gift for anyone interested in architecture. Whilst there are plenty of examples of imperial architecture associated with the Habsburgs, there is also quite a bit that is – and was at its time – rather challenging (particularly to the establishment). But eventually became accepted and then celebrated in the city. Take, for example, the Postsparkasse (left) built in 1904-12 by Otto Wagner. It is an imposing building and is not fancy apart from very small nodules being placed perfectly in vertical and horizontal lines. To see them, readers will need to click on the photograph and then enlarge. It should not work, but it does.

Wagner’s art nouveau and modernist architecture is not in short supply in the city. Wagner was a founder member of  revolutionary artists’ association, Vienna Secession. I suspect our next visit will take in all of these buildings in turn. Apparently we will be hunting down a number of residential properties, railway stations (U-Bahn) and the Danube Weir. The Postsparkasse is, clearly, not art nouveau, but apparently it is a masterclass in modernist interior as well as exterior. Seemingly everything from radiators, counters to desks and door handles are worthy of note.

For readers wanting to get back to Munich, we can report that the operator of the rail route between Vienna and Salzburg (Westbahn) does not accept tandems. So we had to come back with OBB and Deutsche Bahn via Leoben. Not the most direct route, and certainly not cheap. There is dedicated cycle space, however. It was wonderfully scenic. The ride in to Vienna to get to Hauptbahnhof took about an hour. The path takes riders past Hundertwasser’s power station (right) and then further along the Danube canal to Schweden Platz. From there one needs help as Hauptbahnhof is not well signposted. We resorted to Google Maps.

Tandem Tour 2018 Part 4: Ottensheim to Dürnstein

In light rain we continued along the north path towards Linz. We decided not to cross the river into the city, but rather to shelter under the entrance to the Information centre in Urfahr (the partner town to Linz on the north bank). An hour later we moved on in light rain.

Deceptive sun, Linz

There is no functional path on the south because of a sizeable industrial area. It can be viewed from the north for those interested in such areas (myself included; the river’s frequent hydro plants are extraordinary constructions). As we hugged the bank of the river the weather improved. At Abwinden the path moves inland for a short way, through St Georgen and rejoining the river at Langenstein.

Rural idyll. A quiet Danube

We took a break at Mauthausen; the town’s Nazi history – large labour camp and its satellites – is confronted in memorials, activities/seminars, etc. Austria was annexed by the Nazis in 1938. This part of Austria had a significant cluster of labour camps where prisoners (many of them non-German) were worked, in many cases, to death in quarries, mines, munitions and aircraft factories.

Then on to Au, where there is a campsite, with “Badesee” and other water attractions. The tranquility of this stretch is wonderful: the Danube at its best. It is easy to make progress on the dykes. Inland again through Mitterkirchen.  The sun was by this time dominant, though on the approach to Grein we met both a road and railway. The campsite is located on the path to the south side of the town.

Grein is a lovely town. In the market square one finds the Town Hall and a host of cafes and restaurants. Sunday night is a shade limited. We went to a sort-of-Italian restaurant (with significant Greek influence on the menu, Pizzaria La Vita) frequented by locals and campers. We had not fully accounted for the Austrian laws that do allow smoking in restaurants. This place was like going back in time in the UK. The fug was extraordinary and the environment unpleasant. Sitting outside was not an option because the temperature had dropped significantly.

For breakfast we started at the bakery in the marketplace (smoke free) and then to the Konditorei on the bank of the river for a second coffee. There is in the town a fantastic bicycle shop. It reminded me of childhood. Everything had a place and it smelled of oil – bicycle oil, that is. Marvellous. My beloved bought a new cycle jersey that smelled, until it met with some soapy water, of that bicycle shop.

Across the ferry to the south side where the track was again dedicated. Beautiful in the sunshine, tree-lined and hugging the river. Not too many refreshment options before Ybbs. There we found another baker’s shop and ate outrageous (by which I mean large and full of gooey nice stuff) pastries and coffee in the sun.

23 kilometers further through the vineyards and orchards is Melk. This is always a reminder that, whilst I may be on holiday, many people are not, especially the migrant workers who harvest the grapes. Lots of migrant labour is in evidence, trying to earn money for their families, let alone a holiday. I should not need to be reminded.

We half had a mind to stay there at a campsite on the river just short of Melk. We were slightly put off by its location, adjacent to a mooring for large cruise ships – industrial scale holidaying – of which there were five already decanting their load on to waiting coaches. Plus, we were feeling fit and up for a little further in what turned out to be a sunshine-blessed day. From a distance, the monastery at Melk is visible; it is imposing and against the backdrop of blue sky, worth a photo (above left). But we were soon on our way.

The path is quite challenging at this point. The valley becomes very steep – there is a bit of climbing to do on the road close to Schönbühel. Slightly beyond that is Aggstein. The Gasthaus there has a nice garden. We stopped for more food (locally-grown pumpkins are very much a feature of Gasthaus menus in the area, so I opted for Kurbis soup). Then finally on to Rossatz which really just emerges along the route. It is a curious campsite – patches of grass on the roadside, but it was a suitable end to the day, and the night-time view across the river to Dürnstein (right) seems justification enough.

 

 

 

Tandem Tour 2018: Part 3 – Passau to Ottensheim

We had breakfast in Passau Market Square before recrossing the Danube to follow the track on the North side. It follows the main road until Obernzell. One needs to be patient.  From there it is dedicated cycle track to – and beyond – the border (right).

We stopped at Niederranna at a dedicated cycle station (cafe) and did a bit of tent drying in the breeze after overnight rain. We decided to stay on the north path and take the ferry over the river to Schlögen (below left). The north path beyond this point is converted into a ferry ride as the river bends back on itself in what is a particularly picturesque spot. We thought that, because of the distance for the day, we would try to do a shortcut from Schlögen to Haibach ob der Donau and cut this section. Shortcuts area always good in theory, never so good in reality. Out of Schlögen we had to climb 300m on the relatively main and bendy road. With our tandem that was quite a challenge. We then missed the road back to the river at Haibach. We carried on towards Hartkirchen and then eventually to Aschach. We saved kilometers, but probably not time.

View from ferry to Schlögen

From Aschach the path is again dedicated. It began to rain heavily. There was a marked campsite on the south side of the river near Ottensheim. It turned out not to be there. We were forced, then, to seek shelter in Ottensheim itself. We used to car ferry to do so. A great ferry that uses minimal fuel by using the current and a cable slug across the river. The motors are intermittently powered to provide momentum. Our guide recommended a hotel in the marketplace. It was full. We carried on out of the town for a couple of kilometers to Rodl where we found a campsite with a Gasthaus opposite. The landlady was brilliant. She made us some veggie pasta supported by a glass of Zweigelt.

Finally at the peak near Haibach ob der Donau

The site provided cover in a hut with electricity, sufficient for us to sit and read for a short while. The rain continued into the morning. It lightened whilst we showered.

Tandem Tour 2018: Part 2 Marktl to Passau

The first night under canvass is often not the best. A working farm, of course, invites an early cockerel, bleeting sheep and, of course, tractors. But after breakfast in Marktl we followed the Inn cycle track to Passau; a curious place where three rivers meet, often too enthusisatically (right).

View of Passau heading east along Inn

The route itself is quite rough in places. There are long stretches of shingle on dykes zapping energy. The river also has many tributaries. This makes it an ideal river in which to swim; and indeed, there are frequent “Badesee” – areas for swimming, sunbathing and having lunch. This contrasts very much with the Danube where we found few places to swim safely.

We stayed on the north side of the river in Gemany. The river forms to border with Austria. At these times of tension around migration, this is significant. At Simbach, for example, there is a border check on the German side. And yes, brown people were being checked.

The route takes in few towns and villages, so if refreshment is needed, the south – Austrian –  side may be a better option. For example, we were getting a shade hungry and thought we might find something in Neuhaus (about 20km short of Passau). We rode through finding nowhere. We think that we would have been successful if we had crossed the river in the Austrian town of Schärding. Actually, a little further on we found a welcoming bakery in the village of Vornbach (there were lots of cyclists already there). It is also worth stopping there because the final few kilometres into Passau are quite challenging. There is a climb into a forested area; it is bendy, dangerous (steep drops are possible) and rough under the tyres. It is also exquisite. Some creative soul has carved some faces into felled trees (left). There is also a wonderful wooden bridge (right) over the Rott at Weihmörting.

On arrival in Passau, we immediately had to work out which river was which. The campsite is on the Ilz to the North. The route to the campsite in the end was quite simple (and signposted), but when one is tired, it does not seem so. There is a significant road that leads towards Hals which has been carved out of the rock; it is certainly not designed for cyclists, but it’s the only way.

We ended up with a day of 80kms. We decided to pause for a day in Passau. It is not a big town. It has an old town – the Danube cruise ships offload in this part) – with a fine cathedral, squares and cobbled streets. The regular town with the familiar retailers isfurther to the west. We ventured there really only to find a bank.

Campsite, Passau

The campsite (left) is directly on the river Ilz. It has a good toilet block with a washing machine. Dotted around the site are clothes drying frames. At first we thought that a lot of people had somehow brought them with them! However, the true gem is the “restaurant” adjacent to the reception. It looks like a takeaway, but dig a little deeper and one finds some brilliant authentic Italian cuisine. It is so good, that we ate there twice, despite the opportunities in Passau.

Tandem Tour 2018 – Munich to Vienna – Part 1, Mühldorf to Marktl

Hunderwasser’s power station, Vienna

Regular readers will know that Vienna is one of my favourite cities in Europe. It is home to some great art, architecture and cafes (never underestimate the importance of the cafes). We have been twice so far this year, so the decision to cycle from Munich to Vienna for our summer tour this year was easy. There is that famous river, the Danube, to follow using largely dedicated cycle tracks. There’s sufficient – conveniently-located – campsites.

We’ve been off the tandem for a couple of years arising from various self-inflicted injuries on increasingly ageing bodies. Last year my back protested – though we salvaged the summer with a bit of trekking (not the most obvious response to a back injury, I know). The previous year we did our Tilman Riemenschneider odyssey.

So, having avoided injury, we checked our gear. I decided to upgrade my sleeping bag in line with my partner’s. I now have a Mountain Equipment Helium 250 – suitable for summer use. It is very light (254g) and packs very small. We also replaced our Salomon Goretex shoes – we were expecting some rain and wet feet are always unwelcome. I went for another pair of Salomon X-Ultra, whilst my partner tried a CMP trail shoe.  Other than that, all seemed in order.

We took the train from Munich to Mühldorf which is approximately 100km from Passau on the river Inn. That would give us a total ride distance of about 450km (for a couple unsure about fitness and stamina this year, that seemed far enough). The train on this route has space for a tandem, and travelling off-peak in the middle of the week, we managed to have the cycle carriage largely to ourselves. There are suitably-sized elevators at Mühldorf to get from the platform to the main street without unloading the tandem. So, in the first day arriving late afternoon, we made it to a working-farm campsite close to Marktl, the birthplace of former Pope, Josef Ratzinger. There is a museum in his “Geburtshaus”. Perhaps more importantly, there is one restaurant in the town, an Italian. The baked vegetables were interesting. We managed breakfast at the cafe in the marketplace, where the nearby pharmacy bears a mural eulogising back-breaking work in the fields (left).

The annual tour serves a number of purposes. It tests – and develops – our fitness. As people who work in a sedentary environment, keeping fit is not so easy. Being away from that environment with a machine that only works if one puts energy into to it, reminds us of our limitations – or our capabilities. It also helps to think about resources more generally. When I first started cycle touring back in the 1980s, there were no electronic gadgets that needed charging. I had a manual “mileometer” and a (camping gaz) cooking stove. This year I took my mobile phone, but did not turn it on (not least to avoid emails and other social media for 10 days).

Cycling along the River Inn – tracks are often rough but usable

We focused on keeping the Garmin Edge 800 navi charged using a now-ageing “Power Monkey” (charged where possible using sunshine, and if not a power socket at a campsite). Any spare charge went into my partner’s mobile which we used to find a posting box for our postcards, public toilets and to navigate to Vienna’s main station, Hauptbahnhof. We fuelled ourselves with a good breakfast (from local Bäckereien or Konditoreien); Apfelstrudel and some bizarre but good offerings from Gasthäusern or Restaurants. All vegetarian food seems to be open to interpretation.

 

Cigarette advertising blooming like summer flowers

It is true, I did say it was quiet, not much doing on the cigarette advertising advertising front. Anything but, now. First up Camel (left). Sticking with the “Do your Thing” strapline here we have two relatively young people with (unlit) cigarettes in their mouths (always an unattractive image, surely?) doing their own thing. In line with the campaign more widely – and there are many examples elsewhere in this blog – the message is “Fuck off”?

Next up, Pall Mall is back with some fantastic tosh. Take “New Neighbour, New Friend” (right) as part of the “Enjoy the moment” campaign. How nice, meet on the balcony and be introduced by sharing a death stick. Most people do the introductions safely using an intermediary, such as a dog or cat.

Same campaign, same nonsense. Sorry about this one, it has been literally defaced, but none the worse for it. Strapline is very clever: boring short holiday or long-time short holiday. I do not know whether this a a play on the old British saying that I know confuses German speakers. “What did you do on your holiday?” We did nothing”. “Great!” “How can doing nothing be anything but boring?” “Is doing nothing good?”

Finally, (un)Lucky Strike is back (right). Now this one is truly bizarre. And it is almost in line with the Pall Mall neighbours above. The innovation here is that the cigarettes are brown. Not great, I would have thought, but there you go. But added to that, there is now a Luck Strike dating app, “Cigarillo”, presumably for people with a death wish?

“Flaschendrehen trifft”, by my translation, is something like “meet by spinning the bottle”. Random? But to make it even stranger, if one looks at the packet with the “cigarettes are deadly” warning on the white block, one finds, “Wollen sie aufhören?” – “Do you want to stop smoking?” Mixed messages, at the very least.

 

Competition over the tracks: the EU seems to learn nothing from the British experience?

Back in the 1990s I a wrote a PhD thesis. It was about railways. The privatisation of the UK rail system. Actually, it was two theses. The first part was about privatisation; the second, contrasting part, was about the Beeching years where the network was significantly reduced. Anyone wanting to read it can do so here.

The UK passenger rail industry was privatised using a franching model. The infrastructure management was separated from the provision of train services. Contrived competition came as a result of competition for 7-year franchises, not between trains running over the same track. However, there was to be limited “open access” whereby new operators could have rights over train paths in competition with franchise holders. Out of that provision came Hull Trains (now owned by FirstGroup) and Grand Central (Deutsche Bahn) linking towns and cities that were essentially cut from the Intercity services on privatisation. These open access services have been, arguably, some of the successes of rail privatisation.

I remember at the time the “blame” for privatisation by advocates as coming from the EU. It was true, back in 1991, the EU required national rail operators – largely state-owned providers – to account for infrastructure separately to train services. All in the name of transparency, seemingly. What the EU did not require was wholesale route or infrastructure privatisation. The UK got both; though after a spate of accidents, the privatised infrastructure provider, Railtrack, collapsed and the assets were re-nationalised. The rest is history.

It would seem, however, that the EU’s intention was, after all, to force national operators to liberalise their services and, by implication, allow competitors access to all routes, not just the minor ones as is common at the moment. In Bavaria, for example, Transdev, the French multinational, has run the BayrisheOberlandBahn (BOB, left) under this limited franchising model since 1998. Deutsche Bahn bought Arriva in 2010 but had to sell its German Arriva rail franchises to comply with EU competition policy.

The current European scenario is familiar to British rail observers. In Germany the new operators may well be major coach operators. Now coach operation is a relatively new thing in Germany. Who needs a national coach network when there is a comprehensive national rail network with connecting buses to non-connected locations? Well, one was created and, as might be anticipated, there was a flurry of new operators which, over not very much time, consolidated into a new dominant operator. In particular, I point to Flixbus. In the UK it was Stagecoach, FirstBus and GoAhead leading the bus-to-rail charge.

Flixbus was founded in 2013, has three main backers (General Atlantic, Holtzbrinck Ventures and Silver Lake Partners) and operates throughout Europe and in the United States. Taking on Deutsche Bahn is an interesting diversification. Another entrant is thought to be Leo Express, a Prague-based start-up. But more interesting is perhaps competition from other state operators. In Germany, for example, we might expect the French national operator, SNCF, Dutch national railways (Nederlandse Spoorwegen), Trenitalia and Spain’s RENFE to enter?

The EU’s position seems to be championing of customers. The argument goes something like this:

  • rail travel is too expensive across Europe;
  • monopoly providers keep fares artificially high due to producer interests at the expense of passengers;
  • more competition leads to lower fares.

Lower fares have implications. In this case, as has been seen in the UK, national operators subsidise their existing operations by taking on potentially lucrative operations in other countries. In the UK, services run by Deutsche Bahn/Arriva and Dutch state railways (Abellio/Nederlandse Spoorwegen) qualify in this respect.

Cheerleading this nonsense, as ever, is the Economist. Take the case of the Czech Republic: “new operators have achieved costs per seat kilometre that are 30-50% lower than those of the state operator. Passengers are benefiting: the average ticket price from Prague to Ostrava has fallen by 61% since 2011, when the state rail firm lost its monopoly.” The Economist notes also that it leads to greater yield pricing similar to what airlines use. The closer to time of travel – or on particularly-known busy times – prices go up to choke off demand. Great! OK, the opposite is also true, fares go down at quieter times. But trains are not like planes; people use them because they have to and have limited flexibility. Rail has a social purpose, planes, largely not. Innovation is not what is needed per se. Reliability is what is needed.

The Economist goes on. Nederlandse Spoorwegen carry more passengers in the UK than in the Netherlands!  Scotrail had to be bailed out by its parent, Deutsche Bahn, to the tune of £10m, presumably making services in Germany even less-well funded? Liberalisation and privatisation fracture national networks and reduces network effects (the Germans already know about declining network benefits; British passengers have understood this since privatisation).

The Economist then highlights what it knows about such firms when put under pressure. Surprisingly they use their control and knowledge over the infrastructure to gain an advantage. They collude. They even sever track across borders (Lithuanian Railways on rail link with neighbouring Latvia – detailed in the Economist article).

Let us finish on Economist optimism: “And the high costs involved in starting a new railway firm mean that it will take time for the full benefits of competition to be felt by EU passengers, says Lorenzo Casullo of the OECD, a think-tank. Europe’s railways are on a long journey, but commuters will surely be better off down the line.” Same old, same old.

Economist article published 30 June 2018

Photos: Flixbus: Florian Fèvre

All a bit quiet on the cigarette advertising front

Despite my best efforts with my blog – posts about politics, art and travel – it is the cigarette advertising that brings in my readers and sparks interest. It seems, in particular, that Germans are the most curious about my posts, even though all of the examples are free to be seen in any German city.

Of late, the billboards have been few in number, and when they do appear they are boring as anything. The latest JPS (left) is a case in point. “Maximales Vergnügen” translates literally as “maximum pleasure (in death)”

Then there is “Passt Perkfekt ins Jetzt” (right) sort-of Perfect Fit now? And this “compact” innovation. That is interesting. Does that just mean it is narrower because it seems to be cheaper than “Maximales Vergnügen”?

There is, however, a new kid on the block, as it were (left). The no batteries needed, of course, refers to the considerable competitive challenge coming from e-cigarettes. And whilst I do not like the latter – users fail to appreciate that the vapour that they produce smells and has emanated from their mouths. It is also voluminous (I am sure this is deliberate on the part of the manufacturers and is unnecessary for the efficient delivery of nicotine). Users Blythely inhale and exhale with no care at all for anyone behind them who gets a face full of the stuff. I almost prefer the real thing.

Anyway, not only are batteries not needed, but users get American Spirit. New to me. Looking forward to more genius straplines from this brand and its marketers. And here’s me thinking the Germans were in hock to Russia!