2016 Grateful 10

Dear Lord, give me time. Twenty-four hours in a day simply isn’t enough. Not this week. Or last week. Or next week. It should be alright by mid-November though, so if I can’t get more time, help me make the best use of the time I have.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been this busy. So busy that eating and sleeping are taking a back seat. It doesn’t help that I view deadlines as immovable objects. Once committed, I have to deliver. I need to stop committing in the first place.

And yet, amidst all this burning of midnight oil, I’m reminded of a poem by Robert Frost – A Time to Talk.

When a friend calls to me from the road
And slows his horse to a meaning walk,
I don’t stand still and look around
On all the hills I haven’t hoed,
And shout from where I am, What is it?
No, not as there is a time to talk.
I thrust my hoe in the mellow ground,
Blade-end up and five feet tall,
And plod: I go up to the stone wall
For a friendly visit.

And I know that no matter what else is going on in my world, no matter how much effort it takes, it’s important that I make time for those friendly visits. They might be shorter than I’d like, or not as frequent, but they still need to happen.

So apologies if I seem a tad distracted, or am later than usual in returning a call or a text. Or perhaps I haven’t called at all. It’s not that I’m not thinking of you or wondering how you’re doing. It’s not that I’m not curious about how life is faring in your corner of the world. It’s just that I’m on a learning curve as to how best to manage my time and negotiating that first hurdle whose name is over-commitment.

But despite the angst and the sleeplessness and the bone-tiredness that’s currently my lot, I’m grateful to have the work coming in, to enjoy what I do, and to be able to see an end to it all.


Home on the range

One of the many joys of living in Budapest is the huge amount of activity in the city. There’s always something going on. Places to visit. Exhibitions to see. Concerts to attend. So much so that there is a danger that life in Hungary revolves around the capital and we don’t take or make the time to venture further afield.

The Hungarian countryside is just as active. Quirkiness reigns. The road to the Balaton is well travelled, with the lakeside villages and towns offering plenty by way of distraction. But off the M7 between here and there are other delights just waiting to be discovered, ones that you stumble across when you take a wrong turn or are travelling between one place and the next.

I’d passed the sign for a buffalo reservation on my way to Balatonmaygaród a number of times but only recently took the time to stop and explore. When I think of Hungary, I think of grey cattle and mangalica pigs. I think of birds of prey and wild boar. Buffalo don’t usually come to mind.

And when I think of buffalo, I think of the bison of North America. The wood bison, the largest animal on the continent, can weigh up to 900 kg. It differs from the plains bison (seen in Alaska) in that its tallest point is in front of its front legs, giving it that distinctive leaning-forward look. It’s woollier, too.  I also think of the African buffalo, with its fabulous curly horns. But the buffalo in Hungary look more like shortlegged, humpbacked cows. So much so that when we saw them, we had to look not twice, but three or four times to be sure they were buffalo.

bt-2016-42These relations of the Asian water buffalo roam the reserve at Kápolnapuszta, part of the Balaton-felvidéki National Park. Not quite as big as their North American counterparts, they can weigh up to 700 kg and have more angular faces and straighter horns. The 1.5 km interactive walking trail is very educational, teaching everything about their eating habits and how they breed as well as how they behave in general.

They’re very fond of water and given the choice between working and playing in the water, there’s no contest. They can amuse themselves for hours wallowing in the mud, so much so that you’d wonder what is going on in their heads.

A small museum has an exhibition of the flora and fauna in the area. It also includes the history of the buffalo in Hungary. Picnic tables abound and there are telescopes and a lookout tower from which to view the animals if they’re not cooperating and hanging out close the trails.

I had no idea that buffalos were once popular domestic animals in this country, raised for their meat, their milk, and their might. Many were put to work pulling carts. And while I’m quite fond of a good piece of buffalo mozzarella, I had thought it got its name from its shape rather than from its origins. But yes, it’s made from the milk of the buffalo cow.

Domestic buffalo in Hungary almost disappeared in the 1950s but they were saved from extinction and today, some 300 animals roam freely on the reserve in Zala county. We had the good fortune to see them on the march, one following the other as they made their way across the plain.  The old John Denver song came to mind:

Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam
Where the deer and the antelope play
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word
And the skies are not cloudy all day

And that just about sums up what I’ve learned of Zala county.

The reserve is open daily in October from 9:00 to 17:00 and from 1 November to 31 March it closes at 16:00. All are welcome.

First published in the Budapest Times 21 October 2016

2016 Grateful 11

When it comes to presents, I like mine to be consumable. I’m a great fan of gift vouchers.  A recent gift of an Amazon Gift Card allowed me to meet the wonderful Poke Rafferty and explore life in Bangkok. A massage voucher took me to the Buda Hills, where I got to see the remnants of one of the first golf courses in Europe. And a trio of tokens for a chain of wine shops in the city opened up new vineyards, hitherto untasted. Yep – others might think gift vouchers as an easy way out, but me … I like ’em.

When it comes to housewarming gifts, I tend to go with tradition. Booze is always a good one. In Hungary, judging by the number of jars of honey I received when I moved into my flat, I think that’s a safe traditional pick for this part of the world.

Last weekend, I was introduced to a new line in gift giving, one that’s been around for eons apparently but to date had managed to escape my notice.

Bread: So that the house may never know hunger…or…so your cupboards will always be full

Salt: So life may always have flavor

Wine: So that you always have joy and never be thirsty (or always be in a good mood)

Honey: So that you may always enjoy the sweetness of life

Candle: So that you may dwell in light and happiness

It certainly beats a toaster in the creativity stakes. Am not sure about always being in a good mood though – that might get a little tiresome.


And there’s more

Broom: So your home may always be clean … or … to help sweep away any evil and bad luck

Coin: So you may dwell in good fortune

Plant: So your home always has life

Wood: So your home has stability, harmony, and peace

And grateful though I am for the introduction to this particular tradition, I’m even more grateful that there was no rice!

PS. If anyone has any culture-specific gifts to add to the list, please share. Am officially curious.


Crossing bridges later

As I sat across the table from Péter Kutas in Bridges Food Bar last week, I gave some thought to the creative energy in Budapest that catalyses people and motivates them to make things happen. A paper wholesaler by profession, Kutas is one of a string of people I have met lately who have chosen to reinvent themselves, to do something different. And the transition from paper to food isn’t an obvious one.

A couple of years ago, Kutas had the opportunity to purchase a number of flats in a building on Üllői út in the city’s VIIIth district. The flats, duly converted, now form one of the many apart-hotels/hostels in the neighbourhood. Part of the package included a ground-floor shop, once home to a computer services business that had long since left the building.

A daily visitor to the worksite as the renovation was underway, Kutas noticed that he was hard pressed to find somewhere decent to eat. His needs were simple – tasty, affordable food, served quickly, and with a smile. Not much to ask for.

As the idea of opening his own restaurant took hold, the pendulum swung from sandwich bar to food bar and then back to the middle – the entrées are served either with vegetables or in a sandwich. For someone like me, who’d eat just about anything if it was between two slices of bread, this approach verges on genius.

Bridges opened for business in June. The renovations took six months. As it’s on my walk home, I watched the progress with interest. I like my food. I was curious. So I popped in for lunch one day … me and half the neighbourhood it seemed. The place was jammed with office workers all dealing with the constraints of a lunch hour. If you opt for the daily menu, you order, you pay, and you collect – and the process takes just 5-8 minutes at the busiest time. If you choose from the set menu, it’s delivered to your table. I was impressed. My roasted garlic soup was a meal in itself. My chicken and broccoli looked great and tasted even better. My friend’s Philly cheese steak sandwich gave me a brief moment of envy.

img_6408_easy-resize-comKutas loves his food. He dines out often and knows what he likes and doesn’t like. Chief among his pet peeves is leaving a restaurant smelling of food. He designed Bridges with this in mind. His wife, he says, can never tell if he’s been at the office or in the restaurant. A gallery of black-and-white tones, the only colour to be found is in the coloured-pencil centrepieces sitting atop paper table cloths festooned with pictures you can colour in. Doodler heaven.

img_6407_easy-resize-comWhen I asked about the name, Kutas pointed to the obvious – the bridges of Budapest – but he also explained the idea of bridging the necessity of eating for sustenance with the experience of eating for enjoyment. And he himself has bridged his hobby with a profitable business.

I had a sneak preview of the new menu, which runs the gamut from paella and mackerel to duck leg and ribs. It has hotdogs, hamburgers, and sandwiches, salads, pasta, and desserts. The chef, György Doczi, who honed his skills at the Gerlóczy and SonkaArcok, fuses creativity with taste. The staff themselves are part of the overall bridge, each recommended by or somehow connected to another. And it shows.

With the lunchtime trade mastered, Kutas and restaurant manager, Attila Veégh, founder of the Mangalica festival, are now concentrating on building up the evening clientele. It’s an ideal venue for small parties with separate rooms that can be reserved. Even after one visit, I can see it being a regular fixture on my culinary calendar. It ticks all the boxes. Open Monday to Saturday from 11.30 to 10.00 pm, you can find it at Üllői út 52b. See you there.

First published in the Budapest Times 14 October 2016


Weird monkey

Get the time travel machine ready. I’ve just heard that Bob Dylan has won the Nobel Prize in Literature for ‘having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition’. Am impressed.

debsI was first introduced to Bob Dylan back in 1982 – the year of my debs (prom). I remember my date being less than impressed that I hadn’t a clue who Dylan was. Back then, my level of musical illiteracy had yet to be defined. As we drove to the dance (he’d borrowed his dad’s car and it had a tape deck) he introduced me to the man and during the evening, instead of whispering sweet nothings in my ear, he whispered Dylan lyrics.

And many lifetimes later, I still remember:

Well, I set my monkey on the log
And ordered him to do the Dog
He wagged his tail and shook his head
And he went and did the Cat instead
He’s a weird monkey….
Lay, Lady, Lay still ranks up there as one of my all time favourite songs. Every time I hear it, the clock goes back to 1982 and I wonder…
But back to Dylan and his prize. I hadn’t realised that each award came with a justification of sorts.
In 2011, it went to the late Tomas Gösta Tranströmer because ‘through his condensed, translucent images, he [gave] us fresh access to reality’. In 2007, Doris Lessing, ‘that epicist of the female experience’ won for how ‘with scepticism, fire and visionary power [she] subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny.’ In 2003, it went to John M. Coetzee, ‘who in innumerable guises portrays the surprising involvement of the outsider.’
In 1995, Irishman Seamus Heaney won ‘for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past’.
In 1969, it went to Samuel Beckett ‘for his writing, which – in new forms for the novel and drama – in the destitution of modern man acquires its elevation.’  WB Yeats won it in 1923 ‘for his always inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation’. And two years later, it came back to Ireland, to George Bernard Shaw ‘for his work which is marked by both idealism and humanity, its stimulating satire often being infused with a singular poetic beauty’.
Imre Kertész was the first Hungarian to take it home, in 2002, ‘for writing that upholds the fragile experience of the individual against the barbaric arbitrariness of history.’The list is long and it makes for fascinating reading.
Back in 1901, French poet Sully Prudhomme won the first prize ‘in special recognition of his poetic composition, which gives evidence of lofty idealism, artistic perfection and a rare combination of the qualities of both heart and intellect’. And 116 years later, in 2016, it goes to Bob Dylan.
That’s a party I’d like to be at 🙂 But in the absence of an invitation, I think I’ll simply take myself back to 1982 and spend the day there.

2016 Grateful 12

Serendipity, the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way, is alive and well and a resident feature of my life. I can’t begin to count the number of casual comments that have led to wondrous things, the number of chance encounters that have morphed into lifelong friendships, the number of random acts of kindness that have made my world a better place. 
About a year ago, a mate of mine tried, rather unsuccessfully, to explain a project he was working on: a frequency opera called The Birth of Color. I was never the quickest study in the class but I’m quick enough. But try as I might, I couldn’t get a handle on it at all. He suggested I meet the woman behind it, and the man behind that woman. He invited me for coffee and I met Honora and Dahlan Foah.
Over the course of the next twelve months or so, they kept me posted on developments. At varying stages, both did their level best to explain to me what it was all about. And while I was slowly beginning to get my head around it, it still defied belief. I simply couldn’t see it happening. Now, I’m not short of imagination. In fact, I’m prone to flights of fancy. And I can exaggerate with the best of them. But no matter how much detail they gave, I just didn’t get it.
Last Friday night, 8pm, in the Kiscelli Museum in Budapest, I had the privilege (and I don’t use that word lightly) to see the world premier of Honora Foah’s creation. I had no idea what to expect – I’d heard tell of crystal bowls coming in from Austria. Of a 3-meter pool of water. Of a 60-strong chorus. Of narrators. Of swathes of translucent material. Of lights. Of sound. Of all sorts of stuff that go into such productions. But no matter how I figured it, I still couldn’t do the math.
I invited some friends along, friends who have a greater appreciation for music that I could ever pretend to have. But I fessed up that I had no clue what it was about and couldn’t guarantee anything other than it would be an experience.  I’d met Honora Foah. I knew I was safe in saying that it would definitely be an experience.
The Kiscelli Museum dates back to the mid-1700s. The Baroque building was once a Trinitarian Monastery and vestiges of holiness still reside it its walls. Not necessarily a religious holiness but that sanctity that attaches itself to dedication. Back in 1935, then owner, antique dealer Miska Schmidt willed it to the city of Budapest. And today it is a museum. I was there at a ball some years ago and was mesmerized. It hadn’t lost its magic.

When the doors opened, we were each give a single symbolic rose petal and led downstairs into the crypt along a candlelit path offset by myriad frescoes. It was a tad other worldly, the perfect entrée to what would be even more surreal still.

As we sat in a circle, four narrators took their stations around a silver pool in a darkened stone-walled chamber. Dressed completely in black with their hoods drawn, their faces and voices seemed to separate from their bodies and float free. Two spoke in Hungarian, two in English as they told the story of the birth of colour. The uplight from their tablets cast a spectre-like glow that I would only later appreciate. Nothing in this production was a matter of chance. Everything, from the white in the sheets of music to the stone grey of the walls, everything had its role, its purpose, its place.

Initially I tried hard to hear all the words, to understand what was being said. I like words. I like how they can be strung together to fashion new forms. And I can listen. But I stopped trying to follow the story and instead let myself float on the tide of words and phrases that had a music of their own. I heard of secrets whispered between night and morning, of breathing in a perfume of magenta, of dark being wisdom and light being illumination. And I listened on a whole new level. The story wasn’t unfolding in front of me, it was unfolding within me.

©Andrew Daneman
©Andrew Daneman

When the Budapest Cantate Choir filed on stage with the much-lauded Dr Sapszon Ferenc wielding the baton, the silence in the room was deafening. They put music to all we had just heard. At times they weren’t singing words, but sounds. Composer Lucio Ivaldi’s music is exquisite.

Someone started to play the crystal bowls. And you could feel the room pulsating with energy. The swathes of material suspended from the ceiling were for all the world how I could now imagine frequencies to look. The lights, the sounds, the voices, the story – everything married, including darkness and light.

©Andrew Daneman
©Andrew Daneman

The entire performance lasted  just 1 hour and 10 minutes (and I suspect the 10 minutes had to do with the bilingual narration) but in that 70 minutes, time was transcended. When it was over, no one moved. When the choir filed out, no one moved. Even the air was in deep thought.

Gradually, people came to. And reality intruded.

I was interviewed afterwards and ask for a reaction. And I cried. On camera. I have no clue where the emotion came from. It was as if something, deep, deep down in my soul had been awakened and didn’t quite know what to do with itself. A birth, a rebirth. I still don’t know.  Thirty-six hours later, I’ve stopped trying to name it. To classify it. To label it. If I learned anything on Friday night it’s that there is no need to be all-knowing, there is no need to understand everything. Sometimes, we simply need to attune our emotions and remember to feel.

So, serendipity, once again you have my thanks. The wait was worth it.  I am truly grateful to have borne witness to the Birth of Color: The Marriage of Darkness and Light.

Just popping next door

Growing up in Ireland, living on the continent had an allure that would eventually prove irresistible. Hearing something described as ‘continental’, be it a look, a style, a food, seemed so exotic. While the islanders of Ireland and the UK spoke English, the Continentals spoke it with an accent that made them seem other-worldly. I was enthralled. It was only a matter of time before I ended up in mainland Europe.

I like having freedom to roam, being able to get on a train or into a car and go. And with Hungary being smack bang in the centre of Europe, I’m living in my version of travel heaven.

Last week, we popped next door, into Slovakia. Although a long-time fan of Bratislava, I’ve only recently discovered the delights of Košice (Kassa). This was our second visit and this time, we were simply passing through on our way to the High Tatras.

img_7183_easy-resize-comOne of the many lovely birthday presents I received this year was a four-day train pass to the mountains. It covered the return trip from Budapest to Štrba and then the use of the local Tatranská elektrická železnica (TEŽ), the electric railway, and the Ozubnicová železnica (OŽ), the cogwheel railway. With six different routes to choose from, you can get on or off at any one of the many villages and towns en route. Both run like clockwork. To the minute. And neither goes exceptionally fast.

img_7143_easy-resize-comWe spent the first night in the lovely town of Poprad-Tatry, a haven of penzións and hotels, seventeenth-century burgher houses, and the stunning altars of the Church of St George. It’s close to Tatranská Lomnica, home to a series of cable cars, chairlifts, and a funicular by which you can ascend the highest peak, Lomnický štít, if you don’t fancy climbing it on foot.

img_7075_easy-resize-comThe second night we stayed between the two villages of Sibír and Nový Smokovec, the latter of which is home to the massive Royal Palace, built in 1925 as a sanatorium and sadly now looking remarkably empty. It still features on hotel booking sites so perhaps it simply hasn’t yet opened for the season. Both villages are quite typical of the region – lots of accommodation, a few restaurants, and a couple of churches take a back seat to the myriad hiking trails, walking paths, and cycle routes, all of which are helpfully signposted with the length of time it should take to get from A to B.

Photo by Steve Jacobs
Photo by Steve Jacobs

My favourite spot was Štrbské Pleso. Its mountain lake is frozen for 155 days of the year. Just over one-kilometre-long and about 600 metres wide, it’s nearly 1400 metres above sea level. It’s a major spot on the competitive winter sports circuit (I’d like to see a snow polo game as I’m having a hard time imagining horses on ice) and attracts thousands to its slopes.

In summer and autumn, the area is a haven for Nordic walkers. Young and old alike are kitted out in the brightest and the best of gear. The popular trails are easily identified by the legion of cars parked along roads in what seems like the middle of nowhere. The place oozes good health. Bars and cafés with their outdoor seating, chairs lined with sheepskin rugs, provide a nice reprieve.

We spent the last night in Košice, as options for trains back to Budapest are few and we had an early start. There are only two direct trains – one leaves at 6am, a second at 6pm. All others go via Bratislava and take more than 10 hours so be careful.

We’re already planning another trip next door for the Tatry Ice Master in Hrebienok in January, when the High Tatras will be at their best. If you want to escape the city madness, get yourself a pass and head to the mountains.

First published in the Budapest Times 7 October 2016

Winter wonderland without the snow

It doesn’t take much to imagine the neighbourhood deep in snow. But it does take a lot for me to imagine snow polo – horses on ice. Now that I know it exists, it’s bumped its way up on my list of things to see before I die.

For our second night in the Tatras, we’d booked into an apartment hotel between the villages of Sibír and Nový Smokovec. Just a kilometre apart, both have train stations. Our hotel was a family-run hotel, one of many in the region. It came with a kitchen, living area, bedroom, and a massive balcony. I was amused at the price list and the charges for changing bed linen, cleaning the room, swapping out the towels, all hints of long-term stays. The background noise of deers rutting during the night came free of charge.

If you’re not into hiking or walking or cycling (or skiing when there’s snow), it would seem that there’s not a lot else on offer by way of entertainment. But there’s ample quiet to read, to write, to be. It’s the healthiest place I’ve been to in years. Everyone looks so fit. It nearly put the longing on me and had I come prepared, I might just have taken to the slopes.

Evangelical church

img_7182_easy-resize-comIn Nový Smokovec, two churches sit side by side – one the evangelical that I mentioned before and the other a Roman Catholic. Its theatre-style seating arrangement was a little strange and somewhat reminiscent of the Frank Lloyd Wright creation I visited in Madison earlier this year. It’s a little shabbier on the outside, so shabby that the inside is quite a treat. Lots of mosaic tiles, lots of colour, lots of glitter. And lots of people.

Photo by SG Jacobs

The Royal Palace was quite deserted. The date above the door says 1917 but what little I could find on the Net says it was built in 1925 as a sanatorium and in its day, it was the place to be.  It looked deserted, but a search of hotel booking sites shows it still listed so perhaps it’s yet to open for the season.

We amused ourselves by riding the Tatranská elektrická železnica (TEŽ), the electric railway, and the Ozubnicová železnica (OŽ), the cogwheel railway, getting on and off whenever took our fancy.  Štrbské Pleso (note the capital P) has a mountain lake, Štrbské pleso (note the lowercase p) that’s frozen for 155 days of the year. Nearly 1400 metres above sea level, the walk around it is about 2.5 km. It’s on my list of ‘go back to’ places as I really want to see a game of snow polo.

Photo by SG Jacobs
You can just about see the ski jump to the left of the hotel

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New heights

I’ve done my fair share of nose upturning at people walking the city streets using what look a lot like ski poles. Poles in the mountains my head can deal with. Poles on a footpath? Puleeeeeessse.

The whole concept of Nordic Walking has passed me by. But in the High Tatras, no one seems to go anywhere without their poles. They come to fit all ages and sizes from 9-year-olds to nonagenarians. When I’d counted my 137th pair of poles, my curiosity got the better of me.  I had to google Nordic Walking.

Turns out that by using the poles (correctly) you engage 90% of the muscles in your body. For that I could look silly (note to self). Or spend more time in the Tatras where I’d look right at home.

Stage 1
Stage 2 – the 15-seaters
The highest workplace in the country

In our innocence, we’d thought we could simply turf up at Tatranská Lomnica and hitch a ride on a cable car to Lomnický štít (Lomnický peak) at the top. So much for planning. It is possible to get a small cable car a third of the way up and then change to a 15-seater to go as far as the Meteorological Station – famous for being the highest working place in Slovakia and being home to the country’s highest telephone box. But to get to the top, itself, and to be allowed wander around for 50 minutes, you had to book the funicular days in advance and cough up €46 (included in which is a €2 deposit on a GoPass skicard).

It’s the tiny little red dot in the middle

The funicular operates between the lake Skalnaté pleso and the top of the peak Lomnický štít suspended on a 1,867 metres long rope. Along its route the funicular overcomes the altitude difference of 868 metres. Originally it was only supported by one pillar set in the southern face of the peak. After the general reconstruction it manages even without the one.

There was a free slot on Sunday, around noon. The weather forecast wasn’t great. The choice was simple. Book, pay and pray. Or play it safe. I gave it some thought. I didn’t think I’d see anything that would really impress me. I’d been higher than the 2634 m I’d be standing atop (Mauna Kea, Hawaii) so it wasn’t the height record I was after. When you’ve lived in Alaska, mountains take on a whole new meaning and while the view from the top of Lomnický štít might well be spectacular, I’d seen Spectacular with a capital S on a daily basis for years. Most of all though, I didn’t want to set myself up for disappointment. I knew I’d be gutted the Sunday noon came by and the clouds had descended.

img_7080_easy-resize-comSo we compromised. We went as far as the lake (more like a big pond in the absence of rainwater and melting snow) and wandered around, enjoying the views and the warmth of a late autumn sun (€19). It was back in the late 1700s that the mountain was first climbed by a local shoemaker. But the credit for the first recorded climb goes to Englishman Robert Townson his guide in August 1793. It would be nearly 100 years later before anyone would attempt to get to the top in winter.

Stage 2 – you can see the peak in the background

The High Tatras are a maze of hiking trails and cycle paths. Some took the cars up and walked down. Others hiked up and airlifted back. I flew both ways. You can climb to the peak but you have to have a mountain guide with you. All so reminiscent of Alaska on a smaller scale.

Down in the village of Tatranská Lomnica, one of 13 that make up the official town of High Tatras, the penzións and hotels rule. I would love to see the place at the height of the season. It must be heaving. Hotels are still going up so it’s not like supply has outstripped demand. Quite something.

And yes, on Sunday, around noon, the peak wasn’t visible. So I wasn’t at all disappointed.

img_7105_easy-resize-com img_7104_easy-resize-com img_7102_easy-resize-com img_7099_easy-resize-com


2016 Grateful 13

As the week draws to a close, I’m officially confused. Even more so than usual. Back in 2009, I went on a road-trip to Eastern Hungary and saw one of the simplest and most beautiful churches I’ve seen, ever. Since then, when I think of Gothic, that’s what comes to mind. So yesterday, in the Church of St George in Spišská Sobota, I was a little taken aback to read that it was Gothic, too. And the two couldn’t be more different.

img_7106_easy-resize-com Just as we went in, a busload of Austrian tourists descended on the place and we got lost in the crowd. Taking photos was verboten and usually not one to break the rules, I put my camera on silent and shut down the flash. But when I could, I snapped. I made my peace with God figuring that such a beautiful place deserves a wider audience.

It’s a miracle that the five Gothic altars have survived as long as they have (the earliest dates back to the 1400s) and are in such good nick. They’re stunning.

img_7116_easy-resize-com    img_7109_easy-resize-com img_7108_easy-resize-com


The 1464 Altar of the Blessed Virgin features the four principal virgins (a new one on me, one that leaves me wondering what made them principals?): St Dorothy of Cesarea, St Catherine of Alexandria, St Margaret of Antioch, and St Barbara of Nicodemia. The two on the right look shinier than the others because they’re copies. The real ones were stolen back in 1993. Is nothing sacred any more?

img_7118_easy-resize-com img_7107_easy-resize-com

But beautiful and all as the altars (and the Holy Tomb) are, it was the modern-day stained glass windows that mesmerised me. Added over time from 2007 to 2013 they’re quite something. Each has a story. I could’ve looked at them for hours trying to interpret their meanings. I didn’t manage to get photos that did them any sort of justice, but someone else did. They’re worth checking out.

I’ve banged on before about modern architecture and the shortsightedness of urban planners ruining the look of places so I was really glad (and grateful) to see that it is possible for old and new to coexist and harmonise. It’s a matter of taste. When fifteenth-century Gothic can sit quite happily beside twenty-first-century whatever, that’s something to behold.

Higher up the Tatras, in the town of Nový Smokovec, there’s an Evangelical Church with one of the most interesting altar backdrops I’ve seen. One that makes Christ look positively human. That too, I could have looked at for hours, but the church was locked up and standing on the wrong side of locked doors shortchanged the moment.


And not alone am I confused, I’m also a little worried. September is officially over. And October has opened with a bang. Today, Hungary will to the polls in a referendum that asks the question:

Do you want the European Union to be able to mandate the obligatory resettlement of non-Hungarian citizens into Hungary even without the approval of the National Assembly?

Critics say this is the Hungarian version of Brexit – I hope that’s an overreaction. But for months now, the city has been awash with billboards asking questions like:

  • Did you know? More than 300 people were killed in terrorist attacks in Europe since the start of the migrant crisis.
  • Did you know? The Paris terrorist attacks were carried out by immigrants.
  • Did you know? 1.5 million illegal immigrants arrived to Europe in 2015.
  • Did you know? Brussels wants the forced resettling of a city’s worth of illegal immigrants into Hungary.
  • Did you know? Almost one million immigrants want to come to Europe from Libya alone?
  • Did you know? Since the start of the immigration crisis, sexual harassment of women has increased in Europe?

I worry that the propaganda might have taken hold. I hope not. It remains to be seen whether reason prevails.