Black Sea, Blue Sky – Balkan Rain

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This rain that has been falling almost incessantly here for the past 48 72 hours seems to have followed me back home from the Balkans. Travelling coast to coast, from Adriatic to Black Sea, over a three week period I experienced completely rain-free days only at the very beginning and end of my trip.

After a sunny start in Zadar on the Croatian coast a low blanket of rain cloud followed me all the way from Dalmatia to Srem, then eastwards to the Serbian capital. Rainfall dampened most of my days in Belgrade, pooling the pot-holed pavements of the Old Town, swelling the Danube and Sava rivers, soaking my inadequately-clad feet. The view from my apartment window was drear, smeared by a greasy film of droplets forever abseiling earthwards. Rain’s moist music filled my ears: gurgling drainpipes, the subliminal hiss of drizzle; the soft tintinnabulation of raindrops on roof tiles whenever it started to fall a little more heavily; in the distance, the rhythmic swish of car tyres riding wet cobbles. Any ventures outdoors necessitated frequent dodging into doorways and regular respite of strong coffee in smoky kafanas. Smudged ink in notebooks, vital scribblings rendered Rorschach by an ever-leaky sky – uninterpretable, beyond analysis. Water dissolvingand water removing, the song goes. There is water at the bottom of the ocean! Yes, but there was water in the streets too; thoroughfares transmogrified to shallow streams, solid surface rendered fluid.

I followed the Danube east then south along the Romanian border, enjoying a brief interregnum of fine weather before thick cloud and more rain greeted me at the east Serbian city of Zaječar. Reaching Niš, a balmy afternoon gave way to a brutal evening storm, with rainfall as dramatic and sudden as an opened sluice, lightning flashes illuminating the street like magnesium flares. Southern Serbia was a little better – just drizzle in Vranje and hazy sunshine in Pirot, although after dark it rained some more. Railroading into Bulgaria I thought I might have finally left the bad weather behind me but it was sheeting down in Sofia when I arrived, too wet to venture far from the shelter of the railway station while I waited for the overnight train to Burgas.

Mercifully, I finally managed to escape the rain on the Black Sea coast. I took a minibus to Ahtopol, the most southerly town on the Bulgarian littoral. By my reckoning this would be about as far away as possible from the concrete over-development that plagues much of the coastline. Ahtopol turned out to be refreshingly low-key: a quiet resort that still possessed a modest fishing fleet and a measure of unspoiled charm. Although summer had arrived the town was still locked in preseason inertia. The town’s beaches were virtually deserted, serried ranks of sunshades still unfurled. The sky – at long last – was blue, as was the water (not black at all). Tiny boats bobbed out to sea on gentle waves. Wild flowers bloomed on the cliff tops. Hyperactive flocks of house martins swooped low along the shore collecting flies to feed their young. In the overgrown scrubby area that led down to the beach, hidden nightingales sang, their joyous bubbling out-competing the construction noise of  workmen trying to coax a new-build hotel into service for the season.

I had a couple of days before my flight home and so made the most of this long-awaited clement weather. Even so, I scanned every passing cloud, even the most flimsy and innocent-looking, for any sign of rain to come.

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Rainy Day Kyoto

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A  rainy morning in Kyoto. The immediate reaction is one of disappointment – a damper on photographic aspirations for the day. But umbrellas have their own aesthetic charm, as do rain-washed streets and silvery skies. The kimono-clad young women who throng the streets of the old city do not seem at all phased by such inclement weather, so why should a camera-toting gaijin?

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Rain

Lying in bed this morning with the curtains still drawn it was obvious enough that it was raining outside, the thrum of workday traffic softened to a watery swash. Soon the hum became augmented by the unmistakeable sound of running water on the street – the drains temporarily overloaded such that a little stream was flowing downhill along the kerbside for a brief minute or two. This soothing sound was soon interupted by the piercing screams of a group of girls on their way to school – ‘Aaargh! Oh my Gaaaad’ – more an exclamation on the shock of suddenly getting wet than any profession of faith. Extreme weather like this tends to provoke a reaction but we are lucky – this is about as extreme as it gets in dry, temperate East Anglia. This year, though, it seems hard to believe that this is the driest corner of the country.

We had been warned: last night kindly TV weathermen had promised a month’s rain in a single day. This, on already saturated soils in many parts of the UK, did not bode well but at least here in Norfolk there would not be any major problems other than temporarily hazardous roads. It is all a matter of proportion, of course. To find really wet weather one has to venture much further east, to Meghalaya state in northeast India where the Cherrapunjee district holds the claim to be the wettest place in the world (although its soggy crown is challenged by neighbouring Maysynram, which likes to assert that it is just that little bit damper). Either way, it is wet: in excess of 12,000 mm per annum, and nearly 25,000 mm back in 1974, which is as much as some of us see in half a lifetime. I spent a happy week in this region a few years ago (admittedly in the dry season). You can read an article I wrote for Geographical magazine about the wonderful living root bridges of the Cherrapunjee region here.

Really wet days like this often put me in mind of places I am especially fond of – the English Lake District, the Scottish Highlands, monsoon India, Meghalaya. I remember washed-out camping holidays with long hours spent peering out of tents looking for a break in the clouds; taking shelter from the monsoon to drink sweet chai in an Indian teashop while the street outside turns into a muddy culvert; the sour smell of city pavements after heavy rain. I am also reminded of my favourite Beatles track, which features Ringo’s finest drumming, superb McCartney bass and a psychedelic backwards-vocals coda for good measure: Rain.