At the Hungarian seaside

IMG_2772Well, I finally made it to the Hungarian Sea. To Balaton (or to ‘the Balaton’) as is said here. The typical Friday afternoon crawl of cars heading down to to Balaton is a sight to behold in itself. Anyone who is prepared to spend hours in traffic just to reach the lake has to really appreciate it for what it is. Apart from being the largest lake in Central Europe, with a surface covering 592 km², it’s a respite from the heat-laden capital. And it’s big:  77 km from north to south with widths varying from 4 to 14 km. It can get to 12.2 m deep but averages about 3.2 m. Water temperatures in the summer get to about 25 cm so it’s perfect for swimming. Back in the old days, it was where East met West – literally. Families from East Germany could travel to Hungary freely, and those from West Germany could get visas to visit; so it was at the Balaton that they met over the summer.

JFW brought the Elizabeth Jane over from England and she’s now happily moored at Tihany marina. The present owners bought the marina about seven years ago. It’s run for profit, to finance its not-for-profit sailing school. A lovely spot with a tiny private beach. We took the ferry across to Tihany after driving about 90 minutes from Budapest. After I had my morning sun and ‘sea’, we headed in to Balatonfüred for lunch. The town is famous for its water. People used to mix water from Whey spring, in front of the Heart Clinic, with sheep’s cottage cheese as a cure for lung disease.  Today, the medicinal waters are used to heal heart and circulatory diseases and for treating general exhaustion.   This last bit is a little ironic, considering that the lakeside was packed with tourists, local and foreign, and was far from relaxing. I so resent my water space being populated. Honestly, when I win the lottery, I’d like to buy an island so that I could read by the water in silence. Am I too young to be so crotchety? IMG_2806

 The ‘nightingale of the nation’ Blaha Lujza had her summer residence here, about 300 m from the lake. Must have been nice! She got this nickname after asking the emperor  Francis Joseph to pardon 13 Hungarian hussars who were sentenced to death.

KG and MI headed off to Tihany later that afternoon, but too much sun and the prospect of a couple of hours in the water took me back to the marina. I really, really, really want to live beside the sea. Or at least beside some water.  I could happily fall asleep every evening to the sound of water breaking on rocks or seagulls singing for their supper.

Tihany is another lovely town best seen in late evening when the daytrippers have gone home. Famous for its monastery and lavender fields, it straddles that fine line IMG_2834between kitsch and quaint. The Benedictine Monastery was founded in 1055 and the foundation charter is the earliest written record extant of the Hungarian language. Like a number of other Hungarian towns and villages, Tihany also has its ‘Calvary’ – huge, outdoor stations of the cross leading up a hill to the three crosses on Calvary. Very moving.

We had dinner there before heading back to the city and I tried the famous fish soup. I’m glad I did. Now that I’ve done it once, there’s no need for me to ever do that again!

Hungarian cops stop for jaywalkers

I am sooooooooooooooooooooo mad. You can’t hear this, but I’m pounding the keyboard out of pure, unadulterated anger. I am sick, sick, sick at what my fellow human being is capable of. Where has the dignity gone, the respect?

Calm down,  Maro…

The day started out fine. K came and painted my outside plastered walls in a god-awful (And yes, JFW, the g is intentionally lowercase) yellow that probably was the original colour of the walls 50 years ago. I can live with it. I went then the Csillahegy to pick up my business cards. Wow. Nearly two years later, I’m finally joining the Hungarian namecard game. The website and the email address have yet to function, but the phone number works! One step at a time. The lads at Steg are good.

Anyway, I went from there to drop off a rather nice invoice – actually, as it’s company money and not mine, I don’t know why I’m getting excited, but it will pay the gas and electric for another couple of months! And then it was time for the ‘pre-speech’ glass of Nyakas. Yes, I was giving my first ‘public’ performance tonight (or last night) : The question of life, the universe and everything: a humorous reflection of living life without a plan. It was TEA time. It went well. I was on a high and had a gob on me so when that action stopped, I headed to Szimpla Kert with GM, the Slovenian Philosopher, and Ms M. All was well. We caught the night bus in good spirits and while jaywalking across Racoczi utca, the cops actually stopped to let us cross. If ever I get to the stage where beatification is being given some serious consideration, that particular miracle can count as one of my three!

So we get to Szimpla… a favourite haunt of mine. And there, in quiet and contemplative mood, I watch the others dance while I take in what’s going on around me.

Katy, from the UK, is having her 30th Birthday party. All her mates are wearing banners with ‘Hungary 2009, Katy’s 30th Birthday’ emblazoned so it wasn’t hard to figure it out. I could see four bannered women, all well trolleyed. The small one, with the glasses, could hardly stand up straight. She was ratarsed. The oldest one was being chatted up by this guy (definitely a native English-speaker). Anyway, Katy was busy chatting up Male No. 1 who did a runner when she tried to pin her tiara on him. and this pissed her off. So she takes it out on Ms Ratarsed and decides that Ms Older has to take Ms Ratased back to the hotel. Each of them is drunk – really drunk – standing, but not quite with it. Mr Chat Up continues trying to ingratiate himself. He looks fine. A little gone, but still walking straight and standing tall with no obvious signs of any delayed reactions. He’s into Ms Older and ain’t happy that she seems to have drawn the short straw and has to take Ms Ratarsed home. He’s showing classic globalisation symptoms: Roman hands and Russian fingers. He is copping a feel at every opportunity and the two women are too drunk to care. Then, he goes and gets his two mates. And the three of them, like vultures, hover and wait. They’re sussing it out. God, these women wouldn’t know their own names in the morning, let alone what had happened. It was revolting. And yes, I sat and watched.

Could I have gone over and interrupted the party? Yes. Would I have been told to fu*k off? Almost certainly. So I stayed put and watched, promising myself that if it got out of hand, I’d interrupt. Thankfully, Ms Ratarsed saved the day by almost collapsing and the gals left. The lads stayed put. But how sick is that? Women drink. Women get drunk. Stupid women drink and get drunk without making sure that one of their mates stays sober. But that doesn’t give men licence to cop a feel, make a play, or plain take advantage. And that’s what it is. Taking advantage. So, it’s not rape unless I say NO and NO and NO …bollocks!

So on my tod, watching the dancers, this chap approaches. He’s having a house party in the next street and would I like to come with him  and ‘get more drunk’.

Nope, I’m fine, but thanks for asking.
Where are you from?
Ireland.
I love the Irish. (sits down). I tried to get this Swedish girl to come to the party. Swedish girls like sex. But she wouldn’t come. What do you do here in Hungary?
I’m a lecktor (editor). What do you do?
I’m a gangster…..

’nuff said.

Eating out with architects

IMG_2726Every Wednesday morning for the last eight weeks or so, I have been wandering through the 8th district, at the Kálvin tér end… on Múzeum utca. After class, I’ve walked past Épitész pince and have never ventured in. Last week, I decided to treat myself to lunch as my curiosity won out. Budapest is full of surprises. Behind high walls lie beautiful courtyards (udvar). Romanesque colonnades are nearly two a penny and the city is swarming with statues. Vibrant colours on painted walls are offset by so many shades of green that even Johnny Cash would have paused for thought.

The daily menu (napi menü) is a very reasonable 970 HUF for three courses (about €3.50, $5, £3) but clever as they are, if you opt for this, you have to eat inside in the pince (cellar). It was a glorious day and I was rather taken with the statues, the greenery, and the ivy-clad walls, so I treated myself to roast goose leg with baked cabbage and apple, and onion potato and sat outside. Plate piled high, I was transported back to my days in Valdez, Alaska when food portions for one would feed three. It was excellent. Everything I wanted and more.  IMG_2729

Épitész is Hungarian for building and this building houses the School of Architecture. I didn’t know this at the time, which makes my train of thought that day even more curious. Mind you, perhaps the group of four solid-looking chaps pouring over blueprints of some kind should have rung a bell. But hey, I was still in aperture land!

Eating on your own, without a book to keep you company, can leave you wondering where to fix your gaze. Even the most exquisite plate can only hold your attention for so long. Between bites of fresh orange and apple, I couldn’t help noticing what a wonderful architect nature is. Admittedly, the building itself IMG_2724is lovely and it comes with a picturesque courtyard, regal statues, an amazing wrought iron staircase, and well-trodden stone steps. Somehow, though, I felt it had grown into itself. Ivy covers the walls and frames the windows; the occasional red flower makes the greens seem even darker than they are. The marble statues are almost human, reflecting as they do years of inclement weather. Long, trailing creepers hang from glass ceilings, weighed down by time. The pebbled courtyard still echoes the horse-drawn carriages drawing up to take the ladies of the house to the ball.

I could live here. And maybe in a previous life I did. But then, if that were true, I’d have know what  Épitész meant…mmmm

If you find yourself in Budapest, take the 47/49 tramIMG_2721 to Kálvin tér or get the No. 3 metro (blue line). FromKálvin tér head down Múzeum utca to  Ötpacsirta utca. Turn right and look for the yellow building on your left. Open every day except Sunday.

Real Madrid

IMG_2555And, no, I’ve not gone over the other side. But even I had to respect the greatness that is Real Madrid and pay homage when living practically next door, albeit for 48 hours, to what some consider to be sacred ground. And it was quite the experience. Somehow, I’d never equated a soccer stadium with clubbing, or ever imagined a soccer crowd clad in Prada, Ralph Lauren and D&G… and that’s not even going near the girls. Madrid truly is home to some beautiful people; never once did I see an inch of scruff on a Spanish-speaking  bod. Bright colours, up-to-the-minute fashion, perfectly coiffed and manicured, these lads are gorgeous. And lovely. Chatty, intelligent, and lots of fun. And what profiles!!! Even their graffiti is a cut above the ordinary. Heads are round to allow thoughts to flow in all directions.

The first thing that struck me about Madrid is the greenery. I had to keep reminding myself I was in  city. Magnolia trees everywhere. Long, wide avenues lined with green; huge parks with water fountains, lakes and more trees. It is beautifully sculpted. It, too, has its old parts, its grand squares, and its narrow, cobblestoned streets. It also has its ultramodern skyline with every brand name you can think of dotting the horizon. It’s a strange mix, this old and new and had it not been 38 degrees in the shade, I might have given it a little more thought. It’s definitely out of my time zone – the afternoon siesta I can deal with; going out to eat at 10 or 11 at night would take a complete reprogramming of my body clock. Staying out until 6am is what I used to do…perhaps that’s it. In Madrid, I felt old.  IMG_2673

After seven years in Alaska, I find it difficult to cope with heat if I’m not near water (and yes, I too ask myself what I’m doing in Budapest… ) Sitting in the shadow of the palace having coffee, I saw three older women, dolled up to the nines, gilt edged and gorgeous enjoying an animated chat over an aperitif or three. One in particular struck me and I found myself hoping that I would be just like her when I got to her age. Eccentrically gorgeous, gossiping with my girlfriends and setting the world to rights over a glass of wine. The sheer energy of the Madridites is exhausting.

The lovely KB, my guide, and her gorgeous fellah R_G, crammed as much as possible into two days. I saw lots and more. I discovered Clara – lager with lemon; ate tapas until they came out my ears; and even had my cards read. Another story entirely.

Back to Bratislava…again

IMG_1998It’s hard to say what it is that keeps taking me back to Bratislava… apart from second-time visitors to Budapest wanting to broaden their horizons. For some very strange reason, I’m in love with the city. I don’t think I could live there though… yet there’s something strangely cathartic about getting off the train after 2.5 hours of journeying through the Hungarian and Slovakian countryside and stepping into the world of John le Carré. It’s like being back in the Cold War…or at least what I imagine being in the Cold War would have been like.  It’s not the best side of the city by any means. Generally hustling with all sorts – backpackers, touristy tourists, local commuters, shoppers, and the usual hang-abouters that come with every train station – it’s far from picturesque. Concrete just doesn’t cut it when it comes to atmosphere. Still, though, there is something in the air. Slovakia joined the eurozone in January this year and I missed that bit of excitement this time around. There’s something rather magical about getting used to new money; the temporary suspension of reality when you just spend and hope for the best, having tried in vain to come up with an easy denominator to make the calculations easy.

The No. 13 tram takes you down into the old town – the historic centre – and close enough to my hotel of choice, the Kyjev. The lift takes minutes to get to the top floor and when you step inside, you step back in time about thirty years. My imagination runs riot and again, I can see spies around every corner. I love it. Nothing has been touched in years. This is in sharp contrast to the old town, where modern sculptures have been plonked in random places.

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I’ve been to Bratislava four times now, and each time have made a valiant effort to light a candle in the Cathedral. Only it’s never been open to the public. I’ve been on varying days – Monday, Thursday, Friday, Sunday and each time it’s been closed. Right next door to this rather splendid tribute to Catholicsm, is a far more intriguing building that is overshadowed by its neighbour. Personally, I think it has more character; better reflects the mood of the people; and for me, symbolises the arty side of old age. If it were a poem, it would be Jenny Joseph’s When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple. You have to hand it to the Bratislavans – they take any and every opportunity available to art it. The day I was there, we came across a bunch of lads who had just taken part in choral competition. While waiting outside on the street to be summoned for their photo call, they started singing. Beautiful a cappella. The jury is out on who enjoyed it more: the singers or those fortunate enough to happen past at that moment. That is Bratislava. You never quite know what’s around the next corner. It’s not somewhere to spend a week – a day and a night is plenty – yet no two days or two nights are quite the same.

The sacrifical rose

IMG_2393There is something strangely evocative about this picture. In Slovenia, in the Karst region, they plant rose bushes at both ends of a row of vines to attract the bugs and keep them away from the grapes. Rows and rows of crucifix-like vines, each with a blazing bush of red roses topping and tailing it. We give roses to symbolise so many things: red for love, passion, respect and courage; yellow for friendship, freedom, and to welcome home; pink for sympathy, admiration, gratitude or appreciation; lavender for lust and love at first sight; and white for sincerity, innocence, secrecy and pure love. And and yet, in this corner of the world, roses are sacrificed for the greater glory…that glory being wine!

I’ve been nurturing a fondness for Hungarian wine and, although I am far from being expert in these matters, I became quite quickly attached to Slovenian white. So much so that I lugged a three-litre flask of it home on five trains and two buses! There’s dedication for you. Once a year, in the Karst region, Slovenians celebrate ‘eight’. Years ago, in old Empress Marie-Theresa’s day, she allowed farmers to sell their produce, tax free, for eight days each year. Now, villages take it in turns to rotate the ‘osmica’ with one farm in each village hosting eight days and nights of food, wine and music. Everyone contributes. It’s a great night out – home cured meats (cured in the wind rather than smoked), cheeses, and fine wines and liquors all oiled by some local musicians. How strange it was to hear Country Roads in Slovenian… but even though the words were different, the music was still the same! A lot like going to mass in Budapest!

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The youth hostel in Pliskovica is perfectly sited for travelling across the border to nearby Trieste. The village itself is lovely – one street that winds its way up hill and down vale. Stunning views over the Karst region and that sense of homeliness that you miss when living in the city. On Saturday night, we headed to Piran and to get there, we cut through Italy and back into Slovenia again.  The borders have gone now; just empty sentryboxes and lone barricades. Piran is what some call the Dubrovnik of the North Adriatic – but that description only helps if you’ve been to Dubrovnik. It’s a coastal town with stunning views across the water to Croatia. And there’s a boat connection to Venice… a link that might explain the Venetian Gothic architecture.  Fresh fish is the thing to eat and the wine… while not of the same calibre as that of the farm near Pliskovica, was lovely, too. I’d like to go back.

I was asking BB, one of the Slovenian lads on the trip, if he’d lived abroad. He hasn’t. He’s travelled a lot, but has no desire to move abroad; no desire to live anywhere else because in Slovenia, he has everything. Mountains, beaches, forests, caves, cities… and you know, he has a point. It’s easy to see the attraction. It does a weary heart good to see a people still in love with their homeland, still passionate about its story, eager to share its today while happily looking forward to its tomorrow. It truly is a magical place.

Kdo? Kaj? Kje? Kda?

K-doh? Ky? Key-vay? K-day? Doesn’t make it any easier does it? Simple questions though, if you know Slovenian. Kdo – who? Me. Kaj – what? Passing the time until my lift to the country. Kje – where? Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. Kda – why? En route from Budapest to a work weekend for the European Scout Region’s adult resources group – too much info I know. In a nutshell, I had about six hours in Ljubljana before being picked up and driven to the final destination.

The last time I was in Ljubljana was in the 1980s when Slovenia was still part of Yugoslavia. I was backpacking and had met a chap called Tomas on the train from Trieste. There were no hostels in the city then and I couldn’t afford a hotel. He took me home to his mother, who lived high up in an apartment block about two hours by train from the city. The middle of nowhere. To get to his flat, we had to call to each of the  neighbours first and my rite of passage was diluted by thimbles of some very potent liquor. I was rat arsed by the time I met mum and she freaked when she heard I was Irish (we had a bad rep in those days). She calmed somewhat when he explained I was Catholic and that it was the Protestants who brought the bombs! Something definitely got lost in that translation.

IMG_2247I didn’t spend long in Ljubljana then; and six hours this time wasn’t a lot either. But it was enough to get a feel for what’s a rather small and compact city. I loved it. It’s the sort of place that reminds you of lots of places – considering most of it was destroyed in the 1895 earthquake, it’s retained much of its elegance. For one who is usually drawn to the older parts of  town, the opposite happened here. Yes, the old town is lovely. But living in this part of the world, I’m in danger of becoming inured to lovely old stuff and it’s good every now and then to rattle the cage and look towards the new. Like Metelkova City.

This club complex includes a youth hostel that was a prison and is a fine example of reclaiming old space. The result is fantastic. The self-described ‘autonomous culture zone’ was born in 1993 when a group of artists, musicians and war refugees squatted in what was the former Army barracks. Spraypainted to within an inch of its life, it’s gobsmacking! And some of the sculptures are what nightmares are made of. IMG_2245 You can’t help getting the feeling that someone, somewhere is giving someone the finger. It’s too way out to be generally accepted, tucked away as it is just five minutes’ walk from the train station. I headed in that direction because I’d heard of the Hostel Celica – the old jail house turned youth hostel. I planned to be back in the city Saturday night to get an early train Sunday morning, so I needed a bed for that night. I rather fancied staying in one of their cells – partly to see if  my ghosts had been fully laid to rest and partly because it was different! It was full… and anyway, I never did make it back to the city …another story.

My ‘direct’ train from Ljubljana to Budapest on Sunday, the one that involved no changes… or so I was assured when I booked it, actually turned into five trains and two buses. Quite the experience. Maybe I unknowingly trod on something in Metelkova… something that temporarily removed the order from my life and inserted in its place a sort of controlled chaos.