Every so often, I find myself deep inside a map. I’ll be splayed across the floor with the map pulled out in front of me, dreaming of the places I need to go. Google maps is no better; I search the name of a town, and five minutes later I’m on the other side of the continent, panning the map across acres of imaginary contours rising out of my screen. I dream of stepped paths climbing into the mountains out of eastern European towns. I dream of pedalling along the coast of Northern California among gargantuan trees, and hitching a ride up the eastern coast of Vietnam. I can escape anywhere with a map. The kind of escapism that really allows me to find myself.
This post is simply a reminder to me. A note in digital time to remember the places I’ve searched. All too often, I dream these big dreams just for them to fade away into the ether, and to be forgotten; replaced by the next whim of cartographic wandering.
I’m fascinated by the non-countries: mainly in continental Europe, but elsewhere too. I first thought about them in more detail after living in the US, and trying to explain what Wales is. Country? State? Nation? Region? Principality? It’s really hard to define, and that’s one of the clearer examples. I’ve been to Wales, experienced the mind bending language so far removed from other European lexicon that it hurts to think about. I’ve seen the huge hills, and felt the strange vibe from the locals when you tell them you’re English. Almost every European country has at least one of these kinds of semi-autonomous regions. Breakaways, territories, enclaves. Call them what you will, they are a staunch rebuff of nationalism, let alone globalism. They often march towards progress whilst holding dearly to customs on the edge of extinction; languages spoken by just dozens of Children, whose heritage may only forge one more generation ahead.
In the Iberian Peninsula, there are multiple examples. I’m sure most minds jump directly to Andorra, but this tiny country is well established, even more so than Wales. I’m thinking of Llivia; an exclave of Spain trapped in the foothills of the southern French Pyrenees. Its only town has a rich history; once the capital city of a country that no longer exists on modern maps. Its independence from surrounding France now a tradition that will likely never change.
What about the Basque country? The rugged northern Spanish region is well known to cyclists for their vociferous fans and bright orange apparel, but its status as just another region of Spain has been fought hard. ETA have bombed and burnt, killed and tortured in the name of publicity for their cause. What’s missing from the headlines is the beauty of the coastline, the empty wonder of hills that abut the shores. The small towns 15 km up winding roads that go nowhere else, but somehow have full service restaurants just waiting to serve you amazing food. Similar in location, but equally independent is Asturias. I spent a week cycling through the Picos de Europa when I was 16 years old, and have been firmly in love with mountains ever since. I would love to go back. Love to see the things I missed the first time around, and love to go to the places that we skipped past on the last visit. Ski resorts that no one’s heard of, endless untouched single-track in the summer and powder snow in the winter. Ripping curls of surf breaking cleanly against the deep blue of a cold Atlantic sea. Don’t go here and expect to speak Spanish, no matter how good your tongue is. These people have an identity which will persist no matter what the formal status of their homeland is. Their persistence of character is one of the biggest reasons to go visit.
Let’s move from Iberia to Tirol. Most often thought of as a region of Austria, the identity of Tyrolean’s is much different. Many generations have considered it a country in its own right, but now it falls equally between Austria and Italy. The mountainous and isolated region spans some of the highest peaks in the Eastern Alps, with few passes traversing all the way between the Italian and the Austrian ruled areas. Masters of either German or Italian will not succeed in communicating with most people. The strong and muddled German dialect is often specific to each town and valley, and in a few places, not accepted at all. Ladin, an entirely untraceable language is also spoken, and with a history separate from modern languages of the region, not be understood by any outsiders.
From the Alps back west; to Alsace. More commonly known for its canine namesake, Alsatian is a German dialect with half a million speakers all within this small department. The regions name derived from the Germanic for ‘foreign domain’, it sits at the border of central Europe, skirting France, Germany and Switzerland. In just 75 years, it exchanged nationality four times. It’s now French, with the distinctive laissez-faire language floating away from the towns. Those towns, though, have distinct German architecture and restaurants more likely to serve schnitzel than moulles frites.
These few examples of overlooked cultures are an inspiration for me to find more. To travel with an open mind of what will be found when I arrive. I don’t want pre formulated ideas to cloud the culture I have travelled to see, I don’t want my own inept language skills to separate me from communicating with local people. And I don’t want those local people to be afraid of telling me their identity. Belonging to a region, rather than a country, should be celebrated rather than laughed at. Being Devonian, or Tyrolean, or Coloradan should be announced with honour and pride – it reveals more about you than the name of a country could.