2017 Grateful 40

When a seven-year-old child has no idea what they want for Christmas, you might immediately think that they have so much already that there’s nothing left for them to ask for. But when that seven-year-old child cannot answer the question because it’s one they’ve never before been asked, it’s enough to make your heart break.

Hos utca 15

This week, I went to visit some families living in two tenement buildings in Budapest’s Xth district, not far from Stadion, a part of Budapest tourists and many locals never see, Hős utca 15/a and 15/b are home to some 600 people, about 130 of whom are children. These 300 one-roomed apartments were built back in 1939. The conditions are dire. A gas explosion resulted in higher common costs for tenants, only half of  whom live in council-owned flats; the others are privately owned. The local development strategy seems to want the building levelled but there is no place for the people go to. Those who have council leases will not have them renewed on expiration. If they have kids, they’ll be taken into care until the parents can find alternative accommodation. The local government has ruled that it has first refusal on any flat offered for sale but the paltry 1.5 million huf (about €4800/$5600) on the table won’t rehouse the sitting tenants. The street, which translates into Heroes Street, is in the middle of an area bordered by the Anti-Terrorist Unit HQ, Zrínyi Miklós National Defense University, and a police station. The mind boggles. What should probably be the safest place in the city, is one that is anything but.

We got there about 4pm and met with Zsuzsanna Urbanovszky from Kontúr Egyesület. Zsuzsanna has been volunteering at Hős utca for about four years and it’s immediately clear that the children like and trust her. We were in safe hands.

This YouTube clip was filmed in 2012 and believe me, nothing has improved. It gives you an idea of what the place is like.

 

We met some other volunteers in one of the flats that Kontúr uses. The door was locked at all times, even though kids were coming and going. Kontúr is cooperating with the Letters to Santa initiative. In its third year, it’s probably one the most rewarding things I do each Christmas. The brainchild of Zsuzsa Bozo, kids fill out their letters to Santa and then volunteer Elves make sure that Santa delivers on what they’ve asked for. It’s hoped that 50 of the 130 or so children will participate, but it’s proving difficult to get the completed letters back. Parents are reluctant to let them visit the little community centre, and even more reluctant to commit to taking the kids to the party where the presents will be distributed on 22 December. More are suspicious about why the Zsuzsas are doing this. Gifts without strings are rare in their worlds.

We wandered upstairs and down, ably guided by a ten-year-old girl, who, if she had a magic wand, said that she would stop people robbing. Later I met a five-year-old who, with her magic wand, would change the windows in her flat into doors. A couple of young boys told me that they’d make people stop fighting. The doors are grilled, padlocked, and chained. The windows are boarded up. The passageways are dirty, smelly, and full of rubbish. There’s an air of abandonment and yet there’s evidence of life. Shadows flitted about the landings, silhouetted by the glow of a cigarette or the reflection of a phone. Everyone greeted us politely. No threats. No lewd comments. No smart remarks by the groups of young men that hung out in the stair wells. Three women and a child wandering freely in a part of town that the police are reluctant to patrol. Yes, Zsuzsanna has earned respect.

I was walking, head down, making sure I didn’t stumble or fall when I passed a pair of shiny leather shoes sitting beneath a pair of well-pressed trousers and an expensive woolen overcoat. I looked up in surprise. Definitely not a local but one who walked as if he knew where he was going. Drug dealer? Money lender? Who knows.

For some strange reason, the Hanoi Hilton came to mind. Perhaps it was the bars, the flittering shadows, the disembodied voices. Perhaps it was the poverty, the filth, the squalor. Or maybe it was that sense of imprisonment that defied freedom of movement. People are certainly free to come and go, but few, if any, ever truly escape.

And yet, there is a pride visible in the homes. Clean, tidy spaces, furnished with old furniture and hand-me-downs. The children are well turned out, polite, and friendly. They have a fascination with manó – leprechauns – asking if I’d ever seen one and if there was really gold at the end of the rainbow. They showed me their letters, explaining what they wanted, asking me to check on the Net to make sure Santa knew the specifics. I learned a lot about Hungarian YouTubers and Soy Luna 🙂 and today, we went shopping for five.

Hymnist Henry Burton wrote:

Have you had a kindness shown? Pass it on.
’Twas not given for thee alone, pass it on.
Let it travel down the years,
let it wipe another’s tears, till in heaven the deed appears – pass it on.

If you want to get involved, check the Facebook page. Consider passing it on.

For the Zsuzsas in this world, who give so graciously of their time, and work tirelessly to better the lot of others, I’m grateful. Ladies, you do the world proud.

 

PS – the observant regular reader among you will notice that I’m out of sync on my grateful numbering – back to normal next week.

Dream your way out of this one

I brag about Budapest. I brag a lot. I brag to the point that I’m beginning to sicken my friends. Those who have been here to visit know what I’m talking about and don’t need reminding. Those who have yet to visit feel as if I’m nagging them. Enough, they say. Stop it. We’ll get there eventually.

It’s not just the fabulous architecture, the riverside vistas, or the city parks that gets me going. It’s not all about the excellent wines, the artery-clogging langós, and the famous marzipan. And it’s certainly not limited to the ruin pubs, the garden bars, and the rooftop venues. My main brag lately has been the sheer variety of affordable music that’s available any night of the week.

Homegrown talent like Frenk, Budapest Bár, and Quimby. Imported talent like Ripoff Raskolnikov and Ian Siegal who play in town so often they may as well be local. And Irish talent who pass through on tour.

This time last year, in November, we had the fabulous Little John Nee, who wowed the audience in Beckett’s and had us begging for more of his peculiar brand of story-telling and repartee. This month, we have Niall Connolly returning for two nights. He plays Club Pop Up in Zalaegerszeg on Sunday, 12th November and Beckett’s in Budapest on Monday, the 13th.

Credit: Art Heffron

Connolly is no stranger to Budapest. I first saw him as part of the The Voice & The Verse ensemble in Treehugger Dan’s on Lazar utca back when Treehugger Dan was doing his thing to entertain the masses and ensure quality entertainment at an affordable price. [Dan, we miss you.] The Budapest stops are usually part of epic tours that take in bars in Koloszvár, jazz clubs in Prague, bookstores in Kraków, and underground venues in Vienna. These boys will travel. And what both Nee and Connolly bring with them is their innate Irish ability to tell a good story. That, coupled with their talent as songsmiths, makes them special.

Connolly has played international festivals from Glastonbury UK to Cuala NYC in the USA.  He’s played the Prague Fringe, the Cork Folk Festival, and the Acoustic Festival in Düsseldorf. Classifying his music is beyond my limited arts vocabulary. I only know that I like it. But those in the know, like the Chicago Tribune, describes his stuff as folk-pop: ‘Terrific. Disarming and beautifully craft folk-pop.’ The Irish Independent says his stuff is very much ‘in the vein of early Dylan’ (and that I can see). No Depression says he’s ‘among the most vibrant, poignant, and authentic Indie folk artists in New York City.’

And it’s NYC that this Irish lad born in 1970’s Cork currently calls home.

In an interview about his album Sound, back in 2013, Connolly describes himself (and his songs) thus: ‘I’m interested in people, and as much as anyone, I’m sensitive to suffering of others, and I get riled up about things. And I love singing. I feel like if I’m going to write a song I better mean it. Because, the reality is, I’m going to sing that song hundreds, if not thousands of times. And I want to mean it every time.’ And it’s that authenticity that makes him memorable.

One of the many songs that resonates with me is one he wrote to commemorate James Connolly on the occasion of the 100-year anniversary of the Easter Rising last year. He wrote it from the perspective of JC’s daughter. Beautiful stuff.  And like everything else about both Connollys, there’s a story to this song, too. He first performed it as part of the Cuala NYC festival at Cooper Union in New York City, in a room where James Connolly himself had spoken many times. Then, later that year, the fab Glen Hansard (the Oscar-winning talent behind the song Falling Slowly from the movie, Once) asked him to perform it with him in Coughlan’s in Cork, and again on the roof of Apollo House in Dublin as part of the public protest against homelessness in Ireland. Hansard sings on the studio version of Connolly’s latest album Dream your way out of this one and, wait for it, Javier Mas (guitar player with Leonard Cohen for years) features on lead guitar. Our Irish lad has done good.

But, you might think, what appeal, if any, would Connolly and his repertoire have for a Hungarian audience? Funny you should ask. Hungary, not only Budapest, but also Győr, Szombathely, Debrecen, and Pécs have strong Irish connections. I’m very fond of quoting a line from James Michener’s 1957 book, The Bridge at Andau, in which he describes Hungarians as the Irish of Eastern Europe. We share a sameness. Speaking with a Hungarian friend some time back, about the similarities between the two peoples, I quoted WB Yeats: Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy that sustained him through temporary periods of joy. You could easily switch ‘Irish’ for ‘Hungarian’, I said. And what about Sírva vigad a Magyar, they asked… wouldn’t Sírva vigad az ír work just as well?

Connolly’s songs are both sad and uplifting. They’re real. They speak to the goodness in people, that need to do something to make the world just a little better (Samurai). He identifies with universal troubles, with lines like ‘to bring home the bacon, you have to work with pigs’ that hit hard at modern-day compromises (Work with pigs). And lines like ‘I will not let the hatred in me change the man I try to be’ that speak to the fear that is choking twenty-first-century living (No cause of alarm). I’ve listened to the album several times now, and find that at each listen, a different song draws me in. And lately, one I’d really like my politicians to listen to, on repeat, is Open your eyes. Open your eyes to all that’s true and good.

Do yourself a favour. If you’re in town, go see him in Beckett’s on 13 November. He’s live. He’s true. And he’s good.

First published in the Budapest Times 3 November 2017

 

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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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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

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.

 

 

 

‘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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Hitting the spot

Where has the summer gone? Is it my imagination or is time flying by ever so quickly, much quicker than years ago when it seemed as if we’d all the time in the world to do whatever it was we had to do. Perhaps it’s a side-effect of the aging process. Or perhaps it’s because many of us don’t have weekends any more. With growing expectations from employers that we be online and available nearly 24/7, the days blur into weeks and the weeks into months and the months into years.

Some time ago, a colleague decided to take two weeks’ holiday. He told the boss that he’d be unavailable. He was going somewhere to switch off: no laptop, no smartphone, no connection to anyone other than those he was with. He wanted a break. The boss was a little piqued. Surely he could find time in the day to check his emails? And if it took an hour to answer them, was that too much to ask? My colleague needed to get with the programme. To come in line with twenty-first-century living. He needed to live up to expectations. But my colleague was adamant. He got his two weeks.

Not being part of the structured work system, some might argue that I’m on a permanent holiday. I can work from wherever I have an Internet connection. The downside is that I’m always working and rarely, if ever, am I completely offline for more than a couple of days. My choice. My lot. My decision. But summer has a way of being summer. In Ireland at the start of the season, I was basking in a cool 14 degrees when friends in Budapest were melting in 40. At breakfast one morning I noticed how everyone was in their summer gear – sundresses, shorts, t-shirts, sandals – even though it was cold and wet outside. No matter the weather, summer is summer.

I know I’m in summer mode when I start to plan everything I want to do over the three months or so from June to August. I make a list of places I want to visit, seasonal restaurants I want to try and other summer-dependent spots I want to take in. The plan being that once tried and tested, I can then take my summer visitors to enjoy them, too.

But invariably, there are some gems I discover too late, just as they’re about to close, their money made, their season over.

A friend of mine recently spent 11 days walking around the Balaton – some 244 km. She’s a natural researcher and had done her homework before turfing up to some village or other. She wanted to discover the best of what’s out there so that she could then share her finds. Two in particular are worth noting. For next year.

The lakeside village of Vonyarvashegy is on the north shore of the Balaton and is home to about 2000 people. The strand is well-tended, a lovely open spot offering access to the lake for people with disabilities. Popular with German tourists, it has a bigger-than-usual restaurant offer, perhaps the smallest of which is The Spot Grill & Bar. In its third year of operation, this little gem opens from 21 May to 10 September, offering trout, chicken, salads, and the requisite Balaton burgers. Probably tired of people dithering between ordering a burger or a langós (both summer favourites), the chef decided to join the two and instead of a burger bun, has encased the patty in a langós. Genius. The desserts, both of them, are seconds material. The tiramisu (the Italian pick-me=up) could have come from Treviso, Italy, and the cheesecake, served in a glass, is delicious. The cocktail list is decidedly upmarket with the Cosmopolitan made from cranberries – something hard to find in Hungary. Added to the excellent food, the simple décor, and the fresh feel of it all is the excellent service. Robert has it nailed – always available, never intrusive, and very helpful. The Spot could hold its own just about anywhere. Class all the way.

The much smaller village of Káptalantóti swells in size for the Sunday market, Liliomkert. Hundreds of visiting tourists and summer residents (mainly German) descend on the place, turning the village into an obstacle course and the local fields into parking lots. With everything from a jar of honey to a kitchen dresser on offer, the place is a mecca for those looking for a piece of Hungary to take home. Nestled in the heart of the Badacsony wine region, the village has several vineyards of note, my current favourite being the Sabar Borház.

The enterprising local tourist board has organised a hop-on, hop-off wine bus that leaves the village 7 times daily every two hours to visit local vineyards.  A daily ticket will set you back 1500 ft. A must for next year. This year, I settled for a stop-off at Istvándy Winery. The restaurant was booked solid, which is no wonder, considering that everything on the menu is locally sourced – even the beef, which come from the herd of grey cattle looking over the fence. The panoramic vista of the Balaton and the vineyards is stunning. And, testament to the attention this family-run business pays to its customers, those of us sprawled on picnic blankets (supplied) on the hill below the restaurant didn’t feel the slightest bit cheated. As we ate our toasted sambos (mangalica pork and trout were the two on offer that day), sipped our grape-juice fröccs (so tasty I could actually fool myself into thinking I was drinking wine), and enjoyed the view, it struck me that life couldn’t get much better.

The summer is nearly over. The cool evenings are setting in. And as the autumn raises its head over the parapet, I can enjoy my favourite time of year knowing I have a head start on what I’ll do in summer 2018.

First published in the Budapest Times 8 September 2017

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2017 Gratefuls 17 and 16

I was awake every other hour last night having a nightmare of the sort I thought I’d left behind 10 years ago when I signed off from my last corporate job. In my dream, I was working for a large tech company. I’d been assigned to two projects. With two bosses. And both needed work done by Thursday at 5pm. It was Wednesday at 4.30pm in my dream. I had plans that evening (freelance work). There was no way I was going to get everything done for both of them or much of anything done for either. I woke in a cold sweat but fell back to sleep almost immediately.

The next dream chapter had me waking early in my flat and heading into work to see if I could get something done. But the company was on lock-down. It had turned into a prison and I didn’t have a pass. I spent an age trying to figure out how to break into the prison to get to my desk. I woke in a cold sweat but again fell back to sleep almost immediately.

The final dream chapter was me trying to sneak past the wardens (my bosses) and out of the prison. I hitched a lift in an army tank and took off cross-country, barrelling through everything in our path, heading for the airport. Then the church bells went and I woke up. Finally.

It’s been a manic two weeks. Friends from Alaska, the lovely S&LM, were in Budapest for just  couple of days. Plans to go see the Balaton were shafted as their trip was cut short because of a technical issue that grounded their plane in Anchorage. We had one evening and another full day /evening to catch up and see the city. The years melded into minutes. We figured it had been 16 years since we’d spoken in person but that didn’t matter a whit. It was great catching up on who was doing what and taking a step back into a life I’d long since left behind. Old friends, good friends, great times.

That was followed by a weekend of visitors down at the house. The front door revolved; as one party left the next arrived. Taking the time to sit and enjoy the garden, to relax in good company, that’s something I’ve not been doing enough of late. The lovelies V&K brought their dog, Sophie, and while I’m nowhere near ready to take on such responsibility, I’d happily dog sit her any day. That pure, unconditional love and joyous abandon are quite something. And we discovered that the farm track at the end of our garden can be followed clear over to the island. Nice.

After a quick trip to Ireland (work) it was back to Budapest for the Minnesotans, MB&JG, who began their three-week European holiday in Budapest. Deluged by deadlines, I’ve been working during the day and catching up with them in the evenings and it’s been wonderful. Burning the candle at both ends, though, is something I was well able to do twenty years ago, but alas, no longer. Two consecutive nights on the town were enough to dampen my wick. I’ve fizzled out. But we got a lot in – some great dinners, good wines, the Budafok wine festival, Ian Siegal playing in the pouring rain at Kobuci… They’ve left for the Balaton. I head to Ireland again tomorrow – in and out – and then will join them Wednesday to head to Croatia from where I’ll fly to the UK on Sunday for a quick lunch before heading on to Ireland again. In the meantime, every available minute will be spent working. I’m in the middle of a feast, workwise, and just at the point where a famine looks very appealing. But I’m reminded of something SR said to me a few weeks ago – make time for people – they’re not always around. I heard of three deaths in one day this week – and it was a sober reminder that life is fleeting.

It’s a matter of priorities, they say. But prioritising is easier said than done when the projects I’m working on are like babies to their owners who want to be kept abreast of every development and are waiting anxiously to view the finished product. Responsibility to deliver weighs heavily. And the load is exhausting. Am pretty much booked up till late November and then I plan to hole up somewhere and recuperate. Till then, I’ll continue to be grateful for the friends who visit, the work that’s waiting to be done, and the dreams that keep me grounded.

 

A niche too far?

Budapest has emptied. The tens of thousands who descended on the city have gone home. Sziget is over and by all accounts, it wasn’t nearly the success it has been in previous years. The week-long music festival has been running for 25 years and this is the first year it hasn’t been run by Hungarians. Or so I’m told. Apparently, the same US crowd who run the weekend Coachella festival in California have taken it over and their influence was visible.

I went myself, for the first time, back in 2014 and had a blast. The novelty was quite something. To see such a well-organised temporary city within a city was evidence of the extraordinary logistical feat involved in catering for daily crowds of up to 80 000 with few, if any, incidents of public disorder. I went then because I got a free ticket. This year I paid because I wanted to see Jamie Cullum again, having thoroughly enjoyed his gig last year at the Veszprém Fest.

He was on stage at 4pm, so we set out about 2 to have an hour or so to wander around before having to pay attention. This time, himself was the virgin. It was Day 1. Pink had played the day before on Day 0 and the five-day passers wouldn’t arrive till the next day. There didn’t seem to be nearly as many as I’d expected and the crowd was somewhat subdued. I saw far more chairs and blankets and lots more sitting around this year. Perhaps it had to do with the heat. It could also have been the music though.

Jamie, God love him, is brilliant. But outdoors at 4pm in 30+ heat ain’t his gig. Still, though, he gave it welly and his 70 mins were great. A short break and then Tom Odell took the stage. They’d said I’d like him but he didn’t do it for me at all. Biffy Clyro, though, they were brilliant. And for all the mad roughness that their appearance screams, they’re gentlemen. Now them, them I’d go see again. And I’ve note to self made to get a CD for the car. They’re driving, stay awake, sort of stuff. I have it on good authority that they got their name because one night, sitting around stoned (hey, it’s what I heard), one of them asked the other to pass a Cliff Richard fan pen, the Cliffy biro. It came out the Biffy Clyro. It makes a good story.

Between acts, we wandered around and looked at what was on offer. Much the same as 2014, there were some additions – like the fun fair. With the Italian marionettes. There’s also a museum quarter where all the museums in Budapest had taken a stand. Skanzen, the traditional Hungarian village centre from Szentendre, was there, too, complete with its games from the past. Various causes were well represented and this year they seem to have had a full theatre and a comic gig or three. I was taken with the recycling efforts but despite handing out free portable ashtrays and offering rewards for bringing back bags of trash, the place was littered with cigarette butts and empty cups. It wouldn’t have taken much had everyone picked up after themselves, but as I say, this year seemed different.

I was very disappointed in the wine village – a paltry offering that was overpriced. And the food…. what we hadn’t wasn’t great but of the hundreds of outlets, we only tried two, so it could well have been the luck of the draw. Perhaps my expectations were too high. But in talking to some Irish friends who’d gone the VIP camping route this year (as opposed to bring your own tent as they did last year) they, too, noticed a difference. More drugs. More booze. More trash. And the music was more mainstream but very much focusing on electro (is that the right term?) dance. Last year, they said, they’d had to juggle to get to all the gigs they’d wanted to see (there’s about 1000 in all over the course of the week), but this year, they’d time on their hands.

Hungarian friends tell me they stayed away because they didn’t recognise the big names. I thought it was just me, which wouldn’t be surprising. But those they knew weren’t their scene. Seems like it’s niching up and playing to a particular crowd – Scandinavians and French.

We rounded off our evening at the Music Box where Ripoff Raskolnikov was doing the business. I’d already seen him earlier that week at Kobuci Kert for his birthday gig. But I wasn’t worried. When he and Nagy Szabolcs (keyboards) get together, they don’t play set pieces. It’s more of a ‘what’ll we play next’ sort of thing. which is good if you’re a regular – you never get the same gig twice.

Sziget? Yes. For a day. But only if there’s someone you really want to see. The experience has become expensive, very expensive, and many are being priced out. The offer is more limited and while the novelty factor is still there, I doubt I’ll be in a hurry back. That said, if Ed Sheerin were to head it up, I’d be there. But if it’s going down the dance route, he’d hardly be their first pick. Let’s wait and see.