White walls and Madeline Ludtke

I have a thing for white walls. Or, more precisely, I have thing for hanging things on white walls. One of the best parts of renovating my flat in Budapest all those years ago was amassing the artwork. I’d brought a few pieces with me on the train journey from London, but it took years of careful shopping and curating to find just the right pieces to match the mood of each room. Forget the curtains and the cushions. Forget the furniture and the fittings. For me, most of the fun in a renovation is about the pictures and the walls.

I remember the series of pictures that would  journey with me as I climbed the stairs to my bedroom in my granny’s house. All the aunts, with their lovely old country houses, had what seemed like millions of pictures on their walls. And if they had stairs, the pictures ran up alongside those, too. The house in the village has a split-level stairs going up to the guest bedroom and I wanted to recapture the experience, albeit on a much smaller scale. I knew I wanted a series of pictures but I wasn’t quite sure of what. And then, as it so often does, the universe answered my unspoken ask and Madeline Ludtke entered my world.

Himself had spoken in glowing terms of his talented niece from Minnesota. She had graduated from art college and was being commissioned to do illustrations for various books. She’s got talent, he said. You should check her out. And I did. And I fell for one of her pieces. A hand opening a door.

It spoke to me of possibility. Of secrecy. Of the unknown. I was enthralled. I had pictured it in my mind as a large print – one that would sit well on the first half-landing, at the top of the stairs leading in from the front door. But, she told me, it’s only 7 inches x 7 inches. I was disappointed. It showed. But, she added, it’s part of a series of seven, her final year art project. And I was hooked. Each picture reveals just a little more of the detail in the one that goes before it.

I was curious to know more about the process, about the mind behind the magic, behind the whimsy, behind the fancy. So I asked a few questions.

From the age of 6, Madeline knew she wanted to be an artist. Me? I was going to be a prison officer, a long-distance trucker, a lawyer, a teacher,  a social worker … Ask me now what I want to be when I grow up and I’d say a writer. Someday. But Madeline knew in First Grade that she wanted to be an artist. The teacher had held up her shoebox sculpture, part of an art project creating miniature dioramas of Minnesota wildlife and their habitats, as an example for others in the class – and she knew, at 6, that this was what she wanted to do. She graduated 18 months ago with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Illustration from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, so she’s well on her way.

I was curious as to how much time each piece takes. But there’s no formula, no pattern. Some take longer than others. I mentioned what Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi calls the flow…something that happens when you get so caught up in your life that time loses shape and form and flies by. Madeline gets that. She gets wrapped up in pieces, experimenting with new media, exploring new possibilities. Watercolour and ink feature heavily in her portfolio (I have a soft spot for ink) as does cut-paper collage.

Having made the decision to purchase and frame the series of seven, and to hang them along the stairs so that the gradual exposition of detail could be explored with each step, I wanted to know where the inspiration had come from.

My artwork is often very wild and whimsical and encourages the viewer to reconnect with their childhood imagination. Sometimes I think of a subject that I want to paint and then I come up with a way to twist it to make the scene more bizarre and imaginative. For example, I could just draw a giraffe, but it would be more fun and interesting if I drew a giraffe wearing high heels walking through the middle of a city.

My series (how quickly I become possessive) was inspired by another project where she painted a window to a crazy city with odd-shaped buildings. She decided to explore that city, to see who lived there, stepping out of one painting and into another. I immediately thought of the fabulous murals dotted around Budapest and of the magic she could make if she had a full five-storey wall as a canvas. I had great notions of putting her to work on the pillars on the back terrace when she stopped off on her travels this summer, but her time in Hungary was too short. I wasn’t worried about taking advantage. She takes commissions. For books, albums covers, portraits, posters, magazines, and yes, even murals. And she relishes a challenge.

I think she’d get on well with my favourite Hungarian illustrator, Papp Norbert or long-time Budapest resident Marcus Goldson, both of whom feature on my walls. She likes the surreal and imaginative qualities of illustrators like Shaun Tan, Victo Ngai, (who made the Forbes list of 30 illustrators under 30 to watch – they love their lists), Brian Selznick (the Invention of Hugo Cabot is now on my Christmas book list), Quint Buchholz, Peter de Sève, Tadahiro Uesugi (possibly my favourite of Madeline’s influencers), and Maurice Sendak, the mind behind the (in)famous children’s book Where the wild things are.

Travel is a complementary passion of hers, one that she mixes with her art as often as possible. When she visited this summer, Madeline was on her way through from a spell in Thailand where she was volunteering with a non-profit organisation called Art Relief International.

The more I got to know Madeline and her work, the more I realised that the world could do with a few more of her. People who don’t shy away from quirkiness. People who embrace the whimsy and refuse to let go of the playfulness that is stamped out of far too many of us, far too soon. This young woman from Stillwater, Minnesota, who has been drawing, painting, and doodling since she was a little kid, has both the talent and the wherewithal to make the world a more interesting place, to offer us some respite from the mind-numbing realism of twenty-first-century living. Whenever I climb my stairs, I take a little trip with her. And that journey is always slightly different.

If you’re in the market for an illustrator or have a blank spot on a wall that is crying out for something different, Madeline can be contacted at http://madelineludtke.com/#contact

 

 

 

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Letting go

‘Two teardrops were floating down the river of life. One asked the other, ‘Who are you?’ The second replied, ‘I’m the teardrop from the girl who loved a man and lost him. Who are you?’ The first teardrop replied, ‘I am the teardrop of the girl who got him.’

How much time do we spend crying over the boy or girl that got away? That promotion we missed out on? The house sale/purchase that fell through? Life can feel so unfair at times. My neighbour in the village is a case in point. She’s had a bad year – crop wise. What with a late frost and a dry summer with little rain, her land hasn’t yielded what it has in years past. And now, just a few days before 1 November, the Day of the Dead, her crop of flowers has been battered to death by strong winds that nearly drove us off the road on our way down earlier this week. She was near tears when I spoke with her. She looked to heaven and asked why God had it in for her… or at least that’s how I translated the conversation. She might just as easily have been commenting on the new paint job on the house up the road.

I’ve been there. I’ve bitched with the best of them about the unfairness of it all. But when I think back on all those missed opportunities I bemoaned, all those failed relationships I cried my heart out over, all those prayers that seemingly went unanswered – I’m glad. And if I had to change one thing, it would be that I’d had the good grace to accept what didn’t come my way and to make peace with it. When I think of the energy I wasted railing against what was meant to be …

Should I sit back and let whatever happens happen. No. Should I not bother at all? No. No. I know I need to work for what I have, to put in that effort, to do my damnedest to make it happen. What I could get better at though, is recognising what doesn’t fit and park it. Move on. Holding on to what ifs and what might have beens is a recipe for disaster. If we spend all our time looking back, we stumble over what’s ahead of us, and fail to enjoy what we have.

Yep – I’m down the village. I have time to reflect. And today, when I passed House No. 1 for the umpteenth time, it was the first time that I didn’t have the familiar little tinge of resentment, that little whiff of regret that it had gotten away. Had my offer been accepted, I might well be half-way towards an expansive livable house with sod all money in the bank. Instead, we’ve had 12 months of living in House No. 2. And yes, I have sod all money in the bank, and work has halted till the spring, but it’s coming together nicely.

We spent yesterday hanging pictures, doorknockers, and bells – all gifts from friends over the years, gifts that are only now finding a home. This morning we hit the flea market at Nagykinizsa and scored another pen and ink drawing to add to my growing collection [I have some vague notion about a gallery wall in the living room…] I sucked at art in school. Pen and ink was the only medium in which I ever scraped a B, so it’s always been a favourite. And somehow, white walls lend themselves to clean lines.

My first score (the birds) was in a bric-a-brac shop behind the Nagy Csarnok in Budapest. The second (farmers in a field) was at Liliom kert market a few weeks ago. But I think this latest, the harbour at Balatonföldvár is my new favourite.

Had you told me 35 years ago when I was bawling my eyes out at not getting into teacher training college and thinking my life would never, ever be the same, had you told me that I’d be living in a little village in Hungary saving money to paint the fourth side of an old house and amassing a collection of pen and ink drawings, I’d have said you were mad.

The years have taught me that it is best to move on. To let go of what was not meant to be. Unfortunately it’s a lesson you can only learn from experience. Not from books, or theory, or the advice of others. But from practice. And in the meantime, there are white walls and pictures.

 

 

 

 

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2017 Grateful 8

I’ve been around the block a few times. I’ve met my fair share of people in places I’ve visited, lived, and worked. Many of them are but vague memories from a distant past. Others are permanently etched on my brain. Some I hold close to my heart. And a few, a small few, have taken a sliver of my soul and called it theirs (they’re my soulers). All have contributed somehow to making me the woman I am today.

You might think that the soulers are the ones I’m closest to. Not true. I might have met them fleetingly, in passing, friends of friends. I might not know their birthday or their dog’s name, or even if they have a dog. I might know very little about them other than that one thing that resonated with me and made me look at the world in a different way.

I heard this week that one of my soulers had died. He fought an eight-month battle before waving the world adieu. I have no doubt that he’s gone on to bigger and better things and that the world’s loss is truly heaven’s gain.

I met J when I was visiting South Africa a few years ago. [I think of him as Big Mac, his email handle :-)] He and his lovely wife E took me to visit the township of eSizameleni. When they retired around 2005 and moved into a retirement village, they tithed money from the sale of their house and committed, through their foundation, Smiley Families, to helping the resident gogos (isiZulu for grannies) and the kids they’re rearing. That middle generation has been all but wiped out by AIDS – and those healthy enough and lucky enough to find work often have to travel to it, leaving their parents at home to mind their children.

What impressed me most, during that brief time, was Big Mac’s empathy. He wasn’t blinded by grandiose thoughts of doing good. He wasn’t prescribing what he saw as a fix for what ailed the people or the township. He wasn’t out to convert the world to his way of thinking. His lot, as he saw it, was to try to make their lives a little less bleak.

He wore his religion lightly. He was a man of faith with a staunch belief in his obligation to help, to do what he could for his fellow man.

Our core function is to hold a monthly service to provide spiritual support for some of the grannies and the 60 women-headed households in eSizameleni township here in Wakkerstroom. Together with a religious service we provide a nourishing soup for all those who attend. A local baker provides fresh bread for each meeting and everyone gets at least one loaf of bread together with about three litres or so of soup to take home.

I saw videos of these get-togethers. The happiness. The joy. The smiles. And all from a people with little to be happy or joyful or smiling about. Inspiring stuff.

I asked him once about what would happen when he and E were no longer up to the task, not knowing then that it would only be a matter of years. He said they were planning to send four of the younger adults (18-28) on a Christian Leadership course which they hoped would:

…equip them to someday take over from us when we can no longer do things and thus ensure the future of Smiley Families when we are gone.

I really hope this happened.

When I had it, I sent money. He asked me once what I wanted him to spend it on. Up to you, I said. Your call. You’re there. I’m not. One Christmas, he bought the gogos some hampers but instead of the usual groceries, he told me that he’d included

…special treats that would help take their minds off the grinding poverty of their daily life.

Another time, the local lads wanted to play in the soccer league and needed kit. My money helped suit up the team. He sent me this photo – one I look at periodically when I feel as if nothing I’m doing matters a whit. It never fails to make me cry and remind me just how lucky I am to have been born into the life I live. There, but for the grace of God and all that…

He was in the UK a couple of years back and I made it my business to be there at the same time. We met in Durham. He was a little older, a little slower perhaps, but he still had that glint in his eye. He still radiated the same pragmatic goodness that drew me to him. That evening:

I had the privilege of sitting around a dinner table with four South African friends with a combined age of 270+ years. Talk was not of pains and aches and pills and potions. There were no complaints, no regrets. Instead the conversation was futured with new opportunities, new travels, and new friends. No one was even close to being ready to sit back and retire to suburbia. Aging gracefully is truly a case of mind over matter.

Just when I can see the light at the end of my dark tunnel, others are about to enter theirs. My thoughts and prayers go out to Big Mac’s family and friends. I will be eternally grateful that through his ministry he gave me the opportunity to help, to do some good, to make a difference in someone’s life, however slight. He did so much for so many without expectation of anything in return. He helped me build a yardstick by which I measure goodness and served as a constant reminder that something as simple as a bowl of soup and a box of groceries can make a difference.

 

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2017 Gratefuls 10 and 9

I ran into Bono one night back in the early 1980s, in the TV Club in Harcourt Street in Dublin. I hadn’t a clue who he was. He didn’t impress me then and doesn’t do much for me now, either. But for years, other than occasional one-sentence comments made in passing with Nicholas Cage, Martin Sheen, and Mark Harmon, that conversation was as close to fame as I’d gotten. Fast forward a few decades to my first month in Budapest. I was invited down to the Balaton to see Bródy János in action. My friend was driving him down and I was going along for the ride. After the gig, in which he wowed young and old alike, we had dinner with the village mayor. English was as scarce as goose liver was plentiful. In my mind, I reckoned Bródy was the Hungarian version of Irish singer Christy Moore, both of whom use their music as a social commentary. [Am thinking Oblivious, which was, of course, written by Mick Blake, and They never came home – one of a few songs of his that were banned.]

Back in the 1970s, Bródy wasn’t at all backward about coming forward, speaking out again Communism with a nuance of innocence. His tongue-in-cheek approach was all the more effective for its implicitness.

In June 10, 1973 at a massive beat event in Diósgyőr, Bródy turned to fans and said “We also wish to thank for the work of the police forces. Yes, I’m serious, as there was many of you who already came here yesterday from Miskolc, many of you who couldn’t sleep anywhere, wanted to spend the night out in Avas. For them, the police provided shelter, even if not as comfortable as the bed at home, and let them out today morning, asking them if they slept well, and wishing them fun for tonight.”

I’ve run into him occasionally over the years. He even dropped by my birthday and sang for me a few years back. I had few favourites, like Szabadnak születtél  (Born to be free) and Egy hétig tart (It lasts for a week), both appealing to the hum-along in me. Last night, I went to see him in concert at the Budapest Kongresszusi Központ – an early Christmas present.  Me and almost every pensioner in town had made the journey, it would seem. The average age had to have been 60 – and it was brilliant to see the crowd lapping it all up. He’s a powerful performer.  Okay, so his voice has seen better days but he still has that presence., that almost grandfatherly sagacity that lends itself so well to  being heard.

His latest album Ráadás (Encore) has gone platinum (he accepted an award for it last night) has plenty to say, with tracks such as Magyarok közt európai (Hungarians are European) and Felföldiné estéje (It’s a nightmare); the latter really hit its mark.

Had the Hungarian lyrics not been running across two big screens on either side of the stage, I’d have been lost. But there was enough for me to make a guess at what the songs were about. As for the between-song commentary, that I had to judge from the audience’s reaction. I sensed, though, that one song – Birkaország (Sheep Country) might have struck a raw nerve, ‘A birka burka ára drága, Hát büszke légy, ha birka vagy’ (sheepskin is expensive, be proud to be a sheep).

To Bródy and Christy and Ripoff and all those musicians who write lyrics that ring true, give hope, and speak out, I’m grateful.

And, at the end of what have been a manic couple of weeks in an equally manic couple of months, I’m doubly grateful that I’m beginning to see the light. I have a lie-in scheduled for 10 November and so far, all going to plan, that’ll be the start of two glorious weeks in the village where the sum total of decisions I have to make will amount to little more than deciding which book to read or what movie to watch.

A reminder of what the Grateful series is.

 
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Timeless elegance

In the Corinthia Hotel recently for breakfast, I was struck by the timeless elegance of this grand institution. One of the Maltese-owned stable of hotels in the Corinthia Group, it’s a city landmark. My colleague, a regular visitor, struck up a conversation with a waiter, an older man whose manner and bearing embodied the style and elegance of the setting. It was as if someone had pressed a button and I was back in a time when hotels were more than rooms with beds and their guests more than passing trade. I wanted an introduction.

Sometime later, I sat down with Ernő Varga and his friend and colleague Tibor Meskál to have what I hope will be the first of many conversations.

Ernő Varga

Both men, now in their seventies, have spent a lifetime in the hospitality business. They’ve seen the changes brought by the turn of the century and speak wistfully of a time when waiting was a trained profession rather than something young people did to get them through college.

Both started as apprentices in the Corinthia when it re-opened back in 1961 as the Grand Hotel Royal. Varga spoke of a time when they had teachers, experts who trained them to recognise class and behave appropriately. How they stood, moved, spoke – it was a little like being in the military, he said, with a smile. Back then, as a waiter, he could afford handmade shoes and tailored suits. His profession was one that was valued.

Up till the late 1980s, hotels in Budapest were run by a government-owned company that moved staff around according to need. There was a hierarchy back then, with the Grand Hotel topping the list. It always had salmon and caviar and olives and exotic fruit while, say, the Gellert and the Astoria would only get these treats on special occasions. Varga received an all-round training and is, as Meskál put it, home and host in all areas. For 10 years, he ran Fekete Holló, a restaurant in the Castle District, on a profit-sharing scheme with the government, but was outbid when it was auctioned in the privatisation of 1993. In 2004, he returned to the Grand Hotel Royal (now the Corinthia), where he works mornings and covers breakfast.

As much an institution as the hotel itself, this quietly spoken man (who, as district champion, regularly beats 20-year-olds at ping pong) oozes style. He shares his wealth of knowledge and experience with new waiters, schooling them in the skills they need to perform well on the restaurant stage. It is a delight to watch him at work, to see his attentiveness to detail and the pleasure he takes in doing what he does and doing it well.

 

Tibor Meskál

 

The path Meskál took was slightly different. This debonair septuagenarian is now Senior Duty Manager at the Corinthia and judging by the number of times his phone rang, he’s in demand. He, too, apprenticed in the Grand Hotel Royal from 1961, later moving to Gundel, where he won a waiter competition in 1963. And he, too, knows his trade.

Meskál left Hungary in 1966, following the path of not-so-true love which took him to Australia via a refugee camp in Italy and cafés in Rome. In Australia, he met a Hungarian woman who would eventually bring him back home.

He spoke of the history of the grand hotels in Budapest, of the climate of 1896 that left its mark on these institutions. Szabadság híd, then Franz Joseph bridge, was opened. Work on Parlament had finished. Metro 1 was in operation. The Grand Hotel Royal was the first hotel to be built around a Turkish bath, one of many in the city. It held afternoon tea dances in the Palm Courtyard which attracted milliners and shop assistants, accountants and tailors, factory workers and lawyers, everyone turned out in their best attire. Class divisions were parked at the door as classiness and style won out inside.

Back in the 1960s, hotels in London, Paris, and Zurich were seen as the pinnacle of service, with professional waiters who revelled in their trade. Today, he says, waiters are prostituted by restaurant owners, paid little for poor work, and dependent on tips to pay their rent. A far cry from Varga’s handmade shoes and tailored suits of the 1960s. Hotels take people off the street, many of whom can’t set a table. They may have the look but they lack the style. Things, he said, are spiralling downwards.

But in Australia, in the New World, the opposite is happening. Back in the late 1960s when Meskál first arrived, the country didn’t have a School of Gastronomy. Waiting was not a recognised profession. But when European emigrants like himself came ashore and went to work in the country’s finest hotels, they brought their style with them. The Sydney Opera House opened its doors in 1973, the same year that the School of Gastronomy opened, too. The spokes of the hospitality wheel were finally recognised as skilled trades.

Meskál, who himself has twice served the Queen of England, was one of the first professionals in the country to take apprentices under his wing. Those first six, who started at the Sydney Hilton, still visit him today. Three have their own restaurants, two manage hotels, and one left the fold to become a landscape gardener.

When he came back to Budapest in 1996, Meskál went to work in the Intercontinental, a hotel in which the Vatican once held shares. Sought after for his international experience and his innate understanding of the psyche of the Hungarian waiter, he began a new chapter. He himself had once learned from the masters. Now it was time to return the favour.

Today he’s involved in training, lecturing at the  Schnitta Sámuel Association for Hungarian Restaurant Culture. There’s a book in the offing and an instructional film for those who want to learn the art of waiting. And it is an art. Or rather, it was. Both he and Varga are on a mission to save the waiting world and to reawaken the style and class they both embody.

Gentlemen, it was a pleasure chatting with you.

First published in the Budapest Times 13 October 2017

2017 Grateful 11

I was baptised into the Catholic Church. And for the large part of my adult life (when I got to choose whether or not to go to mass) I’ve been a regular Sunday mass-goer with the occasional mid-week celebration thrown in for good measure. I had a couple of years where I didn’t go. I was living in Alaska at the time, so perhaps it was a combination of simply not bothering and not having a regular priest that put paid to my religious attendance – I can’t remember.

I like going. But I prefer going to mass in a language other than English, as that way I can’t understand the sermon and I don’t get upset at a priest wasting 10 minutes of golden speaking time on a captive audience by not making his sermon relevant to twenty-first-century living. A few years back, for one liturgical year, I posted and recorded my own 3-minute sermons – sermons I’d have given on the day, had I been a priest, something that’s not likely to happen in my lifetime.

On being Catholic

I’ve taken schtick over the years for being Catholic, for being party to a religion that has been damned over and over for turning a blind eye to abuse, for aiding and abetting Nazis in the aftermath of WWII, for atrocities in Franco’s Spain (CJ Sansom’s Winter in Madrid, albeit a novel, was eye-opening). The list seems endless at times. Let us not forget that the Roman Catholic Church, like most religions, is a man-made institution and subject to human faults and failings – not an excuse just something to bear in mind. My relationship is with my God, rather than with my church. My church and I differ on a number of issues, as do my friends and I, too. My religion is my faith. That it bears the Catholic brand is something that doesn’t put in on me one way or another.

Without weighting the various atrocities and scandals associated with the Catholic Church in order of perceived atrociousness or level of scandal, one that has bothered me consistently over the years is the part the Vatican played in the Ratlines and Pope Pius XII’s associations with Hitler. John Cornwell’s article in Vanity Fair back in 2013 left me reeling. Perhaps this is why I’m always inordinately pleased to discover someone of church ranking back then who did some good, who stood up  and lived their faith.

 

God has no country

In Killarney recently, I happened across a man I’d never heard of. Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, a Kerry man, aka The Vatican Pimpernel or The Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican, a man immortalised by Gregory Peck in the movie, The Scarlet and the Black. His was a fascinating life. His life is also immortalised by actor/director/playwright Donal Courtney (uncle of the talented actor/musician/songwriter Jess Leen – one to watch) in his play God has no country. [This is on my must-watch list for Irish theatre – has anyone seen it?]

Stationed in Rome, back in the early 1940s, the Monsignor toured POW camps in Italy tracking down those reported as missing in action. Using Radio Vatican, he’d then try to let their families know that they were still alive. He became a familiar figure. When those who had been released in 1943 post-Mussolini were in danger of being recaptured now that the Germans were at the helm, they reached out to him. [Did you know that the Irish Embassy to the Holy See was the only English-speaking embassy to stay open in Rome during WWII? I didn’t. ] His band of merry men (and women) included other priests, agents of Free France, communists, and some nobility. Together, they hid thousands of Allied soldiers and Jews in hideouts around the country. The Monsignor would travel outside the Vatican in disguise but when the Germans finally figured out who he was, he had to stay within the Vatican to avoid arrest.

The local head of the Gestapo and the SS in Rome apparently drew a white line on the ground marking the point where the Vatican ended and Italy began, a line the Monsignor should not cross. When he was caught and imprisoned after the War, Obersturmbannführer Herbert Kappler had one regular visitor – O’Flaherty. The visits had an effect, as in1959, he converted to Catholicism, baptised by the Monsignor.

When Rome was liberated, the Monsignor and his helpers had  soldiers and Jews from some 25 countries under their protection, evidence of his belief that God has no country.

Hugh_oflaherty_memorial

The Hugh O’Flaherty Memorial

A memorial to the great man was unveiled on 30 October 2013 in Killarney in the hope that

[…]this and future generations will be inspired by Hugh O’Flaherty’s  incredible deeds and example and will in turn play their own part in making our world a better place.

Slowly but surely word of his daring is leaking out as hordes of visitors stop and read and take photos to tweet and blog and share at with a greater audience. Just like I’m doing. Not for the first time, I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to be a tourist in my home country and grateful, too, that I’m still discovering the joy that is Ireland.

 

Four-poster fantasy

I tell myself that I only need a bed. A clean bed. And hot water. And a decent breakfast. I tell myself that I don’t need to spend a huge amount of money on a room that I will only be showering and sleeping in. That’s how I usually justify my hotel choice. But I have gotten tired of the sameness of hotel rooms, the miles and miles of carpeted corridors, the galleries of cheap prints on bland walls. Still, if the bed is clean and the water is hot and the breakfast is included, price usually wins out.

I don’t make the sort of money that allows me to rack up three-digit-euro-a-night hotel rooms. If I did, perhaps the stars would matter. But they don’t. Not really. Anyway, I found out this week that the word luxury as used in the hotel world applies to 6* and 7* hotels and resorts, and not, as I’ve always thought, to the 5* ones like the Four Seasons. So my usual 3* stays have now paled to paler than pale.

When we were planning our trip to Killarney, I reserved two hotels online. Himself reserved one. He seemed quite attached to his choice and I wasn’t much bothered about mine, so his was the one we went with. There was little if any difference in the price of all three. All promised clean beds, hot water, and a decent breakfast. Decision made, I left it at that. I didn’t do my homework. I didn’t check the website. I didn’t check the reviews. I simply trusted that it would work out.

We turfed up to the Earls Court House Hotel just off Muckross Road on a Monday night. We were late arriving but had rung ahead. ‘Just ring the doorbell,’ the nice lady said. ‘Someone will open up.’ So we did. And they did. And it wasn’t at all what I expected, not that I’d expected anything other than a clean bed, hot water, and a decent breakfast.

Hotel history of Killarney

Tourists have been visiting Killarney since the mid-eighteenth century, thanks to the then Lord of Kenmare,  Thomas, 4th Viscount Kenmare, who began by inviting visitors and residents to the town. When Queen Victoria dropped by in 1861, Killarney went international, and it’s been on the global tourist map ever since. Before the railway came in 1853, it had three hotels. A year later, it had seven. And they’ve multiplied over the last 150 years to epic numbers. It seems like every other house in Killarney is a B&B, a guesthouse, or a small hotel. Roomex.com lists 93 hotels. Alphrooms lists 53. Kerry Hotels lists 247. And out of all these, himself chose the Earls Court House Hotel.

Ray, one half of Moynihan team that owns and runs the place, answered the bell. He was all chat. We signed the forms and got our keys, only too delighted when he mentioned that he’d put us in a four-poster bed and hoped we’d enjoy our stay. I knew that wasn’t what we’d booked but hey, I’d never slept in a hand-built 6ft x 6ft four-poster bed so I kept quiet. For a change. Anyway, all I was after was a clean bed, hot water, and a decent breakfast. Breakfast started at 8 but we were due to start the conference at 8. ‘No problem’. he said. ‘We can open the kitchen for ye at half seven. And if there’s anything else you’d like, let us know.’ It was all very relaxed. I offered to pay but he said we could do that when we checked out. No rush.

The voice in the lift announces each floor in a broad Kerry accent. The carpeted corridors don’t match. The paintings and prints on the walls are a hodgepodge of styles. The  Period armchairs sprinkled around the place are upholstered in all sorts of materials and patterns.  And the overall effect is absolutely fabulous. It’s like stepping into a period house, complete with drawing rooms, drapes, and duck-down duvets. Okay, so maybe the duvets are a bit on the modern side but they’re covered with heavy brocade bedspreads that turn a sleep into an experience you want to drag out forever. Tucked out of sight at the back of the hotel is a service room where guests can do laundry. A pragmatic nod to twenty-first-century living.

This is a photo taken from their website. No matter how much I tried I couldn’t do the room justice with my limited photographic skills. We didn’t get the flowers or the wine, but that’s not a complaint – it’s me being honest. I wouldn’t want ye to get too envious. For the first time in a long time, I didn’t want to leave my hotel room. I cut short a night out on the town and passed up on another to come back to the room and work. It was so quiet, so spacious, so real that I caught myself reaching for a bell-pull that existed only in my mind’s eye. I wanted to summon the maid to turn down the bed and draw me a bath (or in this case, a Jacuzzi).

The Earls Court is more than a 4* boutique hotel furnished with some lovely antiques and an extensive breakfast menu covering everything from award-winning porridge (I didn’t ) to a full Irish (I did); from kippers (I didn’t) to a bacon, cheese and guacamole wrap (I did). The home-cured ham, the homemade brown bread, the lemon drizzle cake … delicious. Yep the Earls  Court is much more than a hotel; it’s an experience.

What makes the Earls Court different

And for all that it has, the one thing the Earls Court doesn’t have is sameness. It’s an original. What started out in in 1990s with 10 rooms has been extended to 40 over the years. Ray and Emer are still very visible, very much in charge. But they’re more than ably assisted by a very personable staff who have a nod for everyone. From the witty Margaret Mary on the front desk to the inimitable Agnes, a veteran of the hospitality business, who adds a breath of fresh air to breakfast, everyone we met had time for us. They were never too harried to stop for a chat, to ask how our day had gone, to answer a question or seven. And they have what everyone in Killarney seems to have been blessed with – the ability to banter.

The Lord of Kenmare knew what he was doing when he recognised in Killarney an innate hospitality that would make it a memorable place to stay for centuries to come. And had the Earls Court been around back in the 1700s, he might even have had our room.

 

 

 

Bertha’s revenge

I like my gin. I’m fond of the odd tipple. I’ve even been known to have a lengthy meal, each course accompanied by a different gin rather than a different wine. I like to think that I helped put Dingle Gin on the map, back before it was ever as popular as it now. I’d like it even better if I could get Murphy’s Dingle Gin ice-cream in Hungary, but that’s silly wishful thinking. Neither An Post nor Magyar Posta are up to the challenge.

This week was a first for me in many respects. My first travel bloggers conference, TBEX Ireland. My first time in a four-poster bed. My first time eating gin-infused ice-cream. And it was also my first time sampling Irish milk gin. I know. I did a double-take, too. It was the same Tuesday night that I tripped over the marvelous Longueville House Cider at the Taste Kerry night at TBEX. Justin Green from Ballyvolane House in Castlelyons, Co. Cork, was on site with his gin, Bertha’s Revenge.

Will the real Bertha please stand up

Bertha is a cow. Or was a cow. She was, in fact, the was the oldest cow in the world when she died in Sneem, Co. Kerry, back in 1993. And she was just 48. Considering the average lifespan of a cow is 18-22 years, I suspected that Bertha might have been a figment of some gin-soaked imagination, but no. She made the headlines in Ireland back in 1986 when she got through her 39th successful pregnancy. She was some gal.

So impressed were the lads at Ballyvolane (Justin Green and Antony Jackson) with this prodigious bovine, that back in 2014 they decided to immortalise her in spirit. Their gin is whey-based. They get the whey [the liquid remaining after milk has been curdled and strained] from the local farmers. To this they add some special yeasts and let them work their magic for all of 30 minutes or so. The resulting ethanol is then distilled several times. Using this and their own natural spring water and what they call ‘an interesting mix of botanicals’, they’ve hand-crafted a milk gin they call Bertha’s Revenge (42% ABV).

Their ‘grass to glass’ philosophy is complemented by their annual donation of a percentage of their sales to charity. Sorta gives a whole new slant to the term ‘cash cow’.

I sipped it neat to taste and then tried it with some Fevertree tonic. And yes. I like. A lot. And I might like it even better in a cocktail. But it’s the backstory I love.

With the Irish market (and indeed the world market) flooded with craft gins of varying degrees of quality, its nice to see producers creative enough infuse their gin with something more ethereal than botanicals – a bovine spirit. Bertha was a good looking cow – and this Ballyvolane gin is a good looking gin.

I don’t profess to be an expert in gin. I only know what I like and what I don’t like. The reviews I leave to the experts – like those at the Gin Foundry.

On the nose, Bertha’s Revenge has a real sweet acidity coming from the whey. Piquancy flicks at the nostrils and the cardamom pops alongside a peppery tingle. This carries through to the taste; the gin is sweet at the fore – the liquorice and sweet woodruf makes themselves known – but there’s also a creamy (dare we say milky) taste, which must come from the base alcohol itself. Juniper rises up, but is quickly pushed aside by cardamom, cloves and cinnamon, which dominate towards the end and lingers long after the first sip. […] The passion behind this spirit comes through in the taste – it is of genuine quality and is one we’d be quick to recommend.

I think that means they liked it.

Ballyvolane House itself has a great history to it, too, one that runs to witches, murders, and buried treasure. Note to self has  duly been made to visit, next time I’m in the neighbourhood.

 

Ballyvolane House
Castlelyons,
Co. Cork,
P61 FP70, Ireland

Tel: +353 (0)25 36349

 

 

 

 

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‘Tis all in the apples

I was a great fan of Bulmers back in the day. I loved the stuff. But over the years as my stomach ages and my taste buds get a little more sophisticated, that love has waned. While I still enjoy a glass every now and then, I can’t handle it like I used to. I’ve been looking for a replacement for a few years now but find everything too sweet. Or too dry. Or too sharp. Or too gassy. And I’ve tried. Believe me, I’ve tried. I’ve tried craft ciders. I’ve tried English ciders. I’ve tried Hungarian ciders. I came close once with a French cider, but that was a short-lived long-distance relationship.

The other night, at the opening night of TBEXIreland, I was exploring the stables at Killarney Racecourse. The horses were away and the stalls given over to food and beverage producers from the area, courtesy of Taste Kerry. It was there I ran into Rupert and his cider from Longueville House in Mallow, Co. Cork. [As a complete aside, every Rupert I’ve ever met has been tall – is there something in the name?] It was love at first sip. No artificial sweeteners. No additives. No colourings. No sulphates. No preservatives. Nothing but Irish apples and natural yeast.

I did the whole tasting bit. I sniffed and swirled and let the apples soak into my tongue. I did a mental checklist of all the descriptives I could use, checking for notes and bouquets and heritage. A line from a cider review by Charlie Harvey came to mind: robust with a good kick of apple balanced by some nice farmyard notes. Sounds good but in all honesty, I wouldn’t know a farmyard note if it sang to me. I can’t lay claim to be an cider aficionado. I just know what I like. And this I liked. A lot.

I asked him what the secret was to making a good cider. It’s simple. ‘Tis all in the apples: cider apples. They don’t use eating apples or cooking apples or any other sort of apples other than cider apples. Other cider makers might use cider apples but they’ll then add some regular apple juice to the mix for sweetness. Not Longueville. They only use Dabinett & Michelin, heritage, heirloom cider apples.

I went back for seconds, and thirds, and fourths: they were small glasses. Had the queue not been forming behind me, I’d have been brazen enough to ask for a bottle to take with me. But, Rupert assured me that Longueville House Cider is on sale in SuperValue right now – 3 bottles for €10. I thanked the travel gods that I’d booked check-in luggage to take back with me.

And there’s more: Longueville Mór  (slightly stronger than the Longueville House cider with an AVB of 8%). This cider is fortified with brandy. Their brandy. Yes, they do brandy, too. I liked the cider and brandy mix but I’m not a great one for neat alcohol. The brandy is very much a brandy and judging the sighs of satisfaction from those around me, it’s a good one. Me? I preferred the house cider.

Curious, I did a quick search to see if any cider heads had reviewed it. And I found this on Cider Says:

First Impression:  Light orange amber hue.  Very low carbonation.  Smells of cider apple juice, yeast, and a hint of funk.

Tasting Notes:  On the sweeter side of semi-dry.  Medium bodied.  Low tartness, acidity, funk, and tannins.  Hints of bitterness and sourness.  Notes of tannic rich cider apples, barnyard, brown sugar, orange, leather, yeast, and honey.  Moderate length finish.  Moderate apple flavor, sessionability, flavor intensity, and complexity.

And while still curious – What does sessionability mean? – I was delighted to note that my new love is similar to cider from Normandy, France, ‘such as Christian Drouin Pays d’ Auge, due to the richness, flavor notes, and funk’. Whatever funk is.

Now, all I need is for someone in Budapest to stock it.

Longueville_cider

 

Longueville House, Mallow, County Cork, Ireland P51 KC8K
Tel: +353 (0)22 47156
US/CAN toll free tel: 800 323 5463 info@longuevillehouse.ie

 

 

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All about the banter in Killarney

Brag about Irish scenery, whiskey, or music. Wrap up Ireland in culture,  prose, or poetry. Colour it in 40 shades of green or 50 shades of rain. For me what sells the place is the banter.

I’m back in Ireland. Again. This time in Killarney, Co. Kerry, attending my first TBEX – an international convention of travel bloggers. The main sponsors – Fáilte Ireland and Tourism Ireland – along with the host town of Killarney, are pulling out all the stops when it comes to showcasing the local offer to delegates. Pre- and post-conference side trips include Dingle, the Ring of Kerry, Muckross Abbey, Ross Castle and other local destinations all carefully chosen to give the punters a taste of what some might say is the real Ireland. Posters around the town warn everyone that we’re here – just in case.

The opening event out at the Killarney Racecourse offered an impressive sampling of local food and drinks (courtesy of Taste Kerry), the requisite show of Irish dancing, and a fascinating insight into horse racing given by Sandra Hughes (daughter of the late Dessie Hughes, a legend in his time – I won a few quid on Hardy Eustace in his day) – but more on all that later. What I’m revelling in today is the banter.

We got back into town about 9.30 last night to find a lot of the shops still open. Time works on a different clock in this part of the world. Most of the tourists spend their days out touring the countryside, only coming back into town in the evening, so local merchants have adjusted accordingly.

A young fellah was hoovering inside Shades of Erin – one of the cornucopia of craft shops in town. He assured us he was still open for business and invited us in for a browse. I complimented him on his hoovering and asked if he’d come round and do my house when he was done.

‘Ah sure I will – but don’t tell the mother. I don’t do it at home.’

I was after a Grandfather shirt for himself – one of those heavy brushed-cotton collarless jobs. But he had none in stock.

‘But here, listen. Would you not fancy a poncho? I’ve been sick looking at them for months but today I brought down the price  to €60 and they’ve flown out the door. Mad, isn’t it.’

I wasn’t into ponchos or jumpers or any of the woolens, but he was determined.

‘Yer woman next door might have one – c’mere and we’ll check.’

He led us to a couple of shops a few doors down – Country Crafts. He told the young one inside what we were looking for and left us to it.

‘I only have the one’, she said, pulling out a tent-like shirt in a nice pale blue. ‘It’s all I have left.’ It was massive – an XXXL. Way too big for himself. But she could see I was biting.

‘You’d be quare shnug in this for the winter. ‘Tis lovely and warm. Sure try it on and see.’

I did. The shoulders were down near my elbows and the tail of it covered my knees. But it was, as she promised, quare shnug.

‘They say I’d sell sand to the Arabs’, she said with a smile.

‘Not this particular Arab’, says I.

‘Ah go on’, she said. ‘Tis lovely on ya. I’ll knock another fiver off it. You know you want it…’ And there began the banter. Back and forth. On politics, on tourists, on travel.

I was born in Ireland. I grew up in Ireland. I know Ireland. I’m not one to fall for the tourist twattle. But I love the banter. I wasn’t buying the shirt as much as I was buying the experience. I should have spotted the family resemblance. Danny Cronin and his sister Monica are great brand ambassadors for Killarney and for Ireland. And were Monica running the country, we’d be in good hands.

So with me bagged and sated, she sent us off down to Quills to sort himself out.

I felt my way through the woolens, picked up a present for a friend’s baby, and fixed on a shirt for himself. We went up to the counter to pay. Three women stood waiting to serve us. It was coming up to closing time on a Tuesday night and what business they’d had, had been done. I asked them about the Merino wool, having heard that Ireland was now importing wool from Australia and then  knitting it up. But apparently, we’re also mixing it with Irish wool, to keep it Irish. The traditional Arans with the oiled wool were on sale – they’re not moving as well as they used to, crowded out by the new range of softer wools and pastel colours. There was the usual litany of where are ye from and what are ye doing in town, but far from being rote, they were sincere in their ask. They wanted to know.

Greta, Sheila and Geraldine on the job at Quills

I miss that. I miss getting someone’s life story on the way into town on the bus. I miss the running commentary on the weather or the random remarks from equally random strangers on what I’m wearing or how I’m looking. I miss the engagement, the questions, the innate curiosity that feeds into our stories and embellishes our blather. I miss the banter.

Walking down main street on our way home close to 11 o’clock, we passed Eric Gudmunsen getting traction with the tourists with his Trump song. He had them completely engaged. Further on, the lovely Teresa was offering a taste of some caramel ice-cream.

‘Can I interest ye in some ice-cream? Handmade in Dingle. All natural. Lovely stuff.’

Teresa at work in Murphy’s

I took a spoon to be polite and that was me done. I got the low down on it all, checked out the full offer, had a few more samples and promised I’d be back. And I will. They have a Dingle Gin ice-cream that has a kick in it and a lovely sea-salt one that I could have for breakfast. But apart from the creaminess and the taste and the inventiveness of the flavours, they have Teresa. Wearing her Jackie Healy-Rae cap instead of a hairnet, this pint-sized ice-cream enthusiast is a great ambassador for the Murphy brand.

So yes, Ireland has the scenery, the whiskey, the music. It has the culture,  the prose, and the poetry. It has its 40 shades of green and its 50 shades of rain. But what makes it special are the people and their willingness to engage. What makes Ireland Ireland is the banter.