2018 Grateful 47

Ah, no! Seriously, Tibor? Monday? Say it isn’t so! That was me on Thursday morning. We’d arrived down to the village the previous evening to find the house freezing. It was 5 degrees in the kitchen and there wasn’t a gux out of the boiler. Thinking we might have missed a simple reset button or perhaps needed to do something embarrassingly obvious to everyone but us, we called our go-to guy and then the boiler lad. Neither could help.

Tibor came to check it out on Thursday and said it was beyond resuscitation. A new one was called for. And it wouldn’t arrive till Monday. So four more days of being damn cold, with the lovelies due to visit on Friday for the weekend and no heat, no hot water.

Himself was called back to Budapest and I could have gone, too. But it says a lot about village life when I’d rather be here, freezing my ass off and nipping over to the neighbours for a hot shower, than in the flat in Budapest with every modern convenience at my fingertips. I spent Thursday evening on the couch with a hot water bottle and a blanket watching Season 2 of Doc Martin. Szilvi, she who gives a great home massage, arrived on Friday lunchtime as arranged and we managed to have a brief conversation. A bojler elromlott. Nincs melegünk. Nincs meleg víz. At least my Hungarian vocabulary is expanding; the silver lining in this particular cloud.

Undeterred, the lovelies came anyway on Friday evening after work, armed with heaters and thermals and the makings of some whiskey cocktails for that inner warmth. The kitchen got up as high as 13.4 degrees at one stage. We’d borrowed a noisy industrial heater and had the oven going full blast. For a brief moment, I was warm. Friday night, wrapped in winter woollies, as we sat around the kitchen table making the best of it, I gave silent thanks for the friends I’ve been blessed with. No complaints. No moans. Not one.

The next day, we headed over to Dobrovnik in Slovenia, for a walk in the healing forest. We had the place practically to ourselves. There was snow on the ground and a bite in the air. It was beautiful. I spent time at my four stations and came away feeling tired but content.

Healing forest Dobrovik Slovenia

A stop-off at Vadászcsárda (Hunters’ Inn) in Zalacsány on the way home topped off a lovely day and got me ready for Season 3 of Doc Martin.

Tomorrow, the heating will be fixed. My creature comforts will be restored. And another glorious week will begin. This day last week I was heading to the airport to catch a flight to Malta. Seven days later, I’m back from mass, hatted and scarfed and wrapped in a blanket, waiting for a chap to come quote for a télikert, a winter garden (the Hungarian term for a conservatory). If there’s any money left over after buying the new boiler, it might just be my next project.

 

 

Zala Springs

2017 Grateful 4

I’m lazy. I can be very lazy. And sometimes my CBA attitude has a price. I’d heard tell of Zala Spings, the golf course complex that opened near the village back in 2015. It’s just off the main road to Zalaegerszeg and if you’re heading to the thermal spa at Kehida and take the back road through Zalacsány, you’ll see it, too.

I noticed it last winter but wasn’t at all impressed. It looked like a poor attempt at emulating the K Club, or Mount Juliet, two rather spectacular golf courses in Ireland. I’ll fess up. I was feeling a tad superior wondering how Hungary could ever compete with Ireland or Scotland when it came to golf courses – the tradition just wasn’t there. But, of course, the competition was only in my head. It happens sometimes.

Friends in the village had told me that their recent visitors had been to dinner there and while a little pricey, they said they were impressed. I pooh-poohed. Impressed with the food maybe, but the course? Nah.

Of the visitors we’ve had to date, none has been a golfer. We’ve passed the golf club numerous times and have never ventured in. Until yesterday. And I was wrong. Yep. Wrong. The place has potential. It ranks as No. 1 in the list of 100 golf courses in Hungary and has had some interesting reviews.

Zala SpringsFirst of all, it’s not a golf club, it’s a golf resort. Situated about 2 hours drive from Zagreb, Budapest, and Vienna, it’s a prime location for golfers who like their style or timeshare travellers who want to spend 4 weeks a year on what could well be (become) a championship golf course (five Par 5 holes and lots of water hazards would make for a challenging round of golf). The 2-4-bedroom apartments are ready to move in to and judging from the site plan we saw, lots more are to be built, assuming there’s a demand. The website isn’t clear. I’m not sure if you buy the apartment and then they rent it for you or whether you just buy a time share. But either way, if you’re in Zala country, it would be quite the place to stay.

Green fees will set you back about €60 but it seems you can buy a day pass which presumably will let you play all day for a few euro more. The Pro shop is a tad on the expensive side, possibly catering to the fat pockets of golfers on tour. The entrance is quite impressive and the airiness of the clubhouse is rather lovely. Yep – I was definitely wrong.

Their New Years offer is a steal – overnight stay, gala dinner, dancing till dawn, all the wine and champers you can tipple, and then breakfast the next for under €100 per person sharing. An attractive proposition but I’m not sure I’m ready to mix with the country club set just yet.

Still, it taught me something, a lesson I’m grateful for: I need to rein in my dismissiveness until I’ve actually checked whatever it is out in person. Lord only know what else I’ve been missing. I really must visit that Doll museum in Keszthely.

 

 

Still unpacking

Nearly ten years after I first posted on this blog, I’m still unpacking. That might lead you to believe that I have an incredible amount of stuff, moxie loads of things I’ve acquired over the years. I haven’t. Not really. I regularly purge and rid myself of the tat I mistook for taste. But these purges are less frequent these days, as I prefer to spend my money on experiences.

A friend visiting the village recently, commented on the range of things in the house, things I’ve brought back from my travels – art, books, stuff – that are now on display. I hadn’t given much thought to it, until today.

I’ve just finished painting the guest room – the ensuite with the balcony. Funny how this isn’t exactly what people imagine when you mention living in a rural village in Hungary where the butcher has just done his weekly run through the village and I didn’t have time to stop him. I slept through the breadman’s run this morning, too.

The house came with a lot of pine (ugh) furniture and it’ll be a few years before I have the wherewithal to change it. Likewise, the pitched ceiling in the guest room, is also a pine job – and having painted the upstairs landing (and taken two weeks to do it) I can’t summon the energy to tackle a ceiling of this size. Hence the white curtains and bedspread with their gold thread, woven in a village in Romania and laced together by a lovely old néni I met in Káptalantóti at the Sunday market, Liliomkert, in the good company of MI.

I noticed as I was putting stuff back, that almost everything has memories. The orange blanket I bought on the first of many trips to visit the lovelies B*C in Haarlem, the Netherlands. (I still think that Bloomendahl beach is one of Europe’s undiscovered gems.) The carved Buddha I bought on my first trip to visit the inimitable S&D in Hawaii. It’s a home from home, a place I know I’ll be welcomed and fed. The throw I brought back from Valdez some 16 years ago – it still has a label on it. (It’ll make a lovely lap cover for visitors wanting to enjoy a morning cuppa or an evening cocktail on the terrace – village life ain’t boring, it’s just laid back). The friends I made in that small Alaskan town live all over the world today, and we’re still in touch. You can’t get warmer than that. The blown glass dish we bought in Croatia this summer, on holiday with the intrepid J-Gs. The old biscuit tin or the copy of the Vogue cover I picked up at my favourite market in Bath, in the company of one of my favourite women in the world, the amazing MC. The cross-stitched cloth I found on my first road-trip to Eastern Hungary with the lovely KG. A bronze candle holder that my sis-in-law brought me back from Spain for my birthday. A José Fuster watercolour that screamed at me in Cuba. Even the duvet set has memories of a year spent in Oxford.

There’s new old stuff, too. The tapestry I bought on an online forum that turns out to have been stitched by a friend’s grandmother about 100 years ago. The tin figure of Our Lady that I found in an old wardrobe. A First Communion certificate dated 1948 from a child of a few owners back. Embroidered doilies that I found in a drawer. It all ties together nicely – in my head at least.

But it’s not about the stuff. I could have dressed that room in 10 minutes, had I had a mind to. They’re not just things – they’re hooks on which I hang sheathes of memories that warm me, keep me safe, and make me smile. I’d like to get new bedside lamps. I have a picture in my mind of what I’d like – they’re on my market-hunt list. They’ll have stories of their own. I’d like to get some new furniture or do something with what I inherited. But I’m in no great rush. Something will come to mind, when the time is right. Today, I’m just enjoying the trip back in time.

Travel books and tour guides

Plenty has been written about the differences between tourists and travellers. I’m usually a traveller and very occasionally a tourist – and yes, it definitely depends on who I’m with. I’m not a great fan of guide books that give me the Top 10 things to see and do, all neatly packaged. Such lists come with the implied suggestion that I have to tick off each one before I can claim to ‘have done’ Paris, or Timbuktu, or wherever.  [Not that I would EVER use the expression – ‘I’ve done wherever’. I’ve been to Malta about two dozen times at least and I still haven’t seen everything there is to see on the island. I defy anyone to say they’ve done Malta.]

I dislike rankings, TripAdvisor being a case in point. Without knowing these people, how can I trust their opinion of what is worth seeing? It’s all very objective. Things needs context. I don’t have much faith in numbers. But that’s me.

I rarely do any prep work in advance of a trip. I don’t have a set list of things to see or do in my head. I have my usuals – I want to find a local market, I want to spend a few hours in a local cemetery, and if there’s a museum that deals with man’s inhumanity to man, I’ll be there. I like to cash in on the three wishes I get each time I visit a church for the first time, so they’re always a possibility. And I like to eat like the locals do – I’d take street food and neighbourhood caffs over posh restaurants any day.

But for that sense of place, that background of culture, that familiarity of people, for those I go to novels set wherever I’m headed.

I was in New Orleans back in 2001. I was driving around the southern states and it was my start and end point. I liked it a lot. And now I want to go back. Not because I have any lasting impression of the place from when I was there, but because I’m in the middle of the Skip Langdon series by Julie Smith.

I’d read the second book first and liked it enough to go back to the start – and I’m glad I did. New Orleans Mourning explains the essence of Mardi Gras and the French Quarter. [I didn’t know that a string of Mardi Gras beads is referred to as a ‘pair of beads’ – and I had no idea that NOLA was such a class-conscious city.] Smith develops each character’s strengths and insecurities and uses this to give her whodunnit context. By the end of the first two books, I was sold. I’m happily kindling through the rest of them and want to go back to see it all for myself, using Skip as my guide.

Dana Stabenow does something similar with her Kate Shugak in Alaska. Peter May does it with Finlay McLeod on the Scottish islands. Timothy Hallinan does it with Poke Rafferty in Bangkok. And the list goes on. This is my sort of travel reading.

On the rare occasion I buy a guidebook, I buy local – something written by someone who lives in the area. Years ago in Venice, we wandered around with Tiziano Scarpa’s Venice is a Fish. More recently, in Košice, Slovakia, Milan Kolcun’s Details in Košice, a sequel to Wanders in Košice, was our guide – both purchased in the local tourist information office, both little gems, replete with backstories, insider tips, and context. Just what I like.

2017 Grateful 6

I don’t think I’ll ever grow up. Not really. I might get a little more responsible, a little more sensible, a little more pragmatic, but at heart, I’ll still be that gullible kid who believes in magic, in fairies, in ghosts. I needed very little persuading when the lovely GZs suggested a trip across the border into Slovenia to Bukovniško lake and its magic forest. Not too clear about what to expect herself, she sold me on the idea of healing energy and curing waters.

Back in 2001, Dr Ilija Čosić (who, as far as I can tell, is a writer/professor from Novi Sad in Serbia) visited the lake and mapped the bioenergy and radiesthesy. [I had to check that one out: Radiesthesia is the science of using the vibrational fields of the human body to access information about other objects of animate or inanimate nature by establishing resonance with their energy fields, using specially calibrated instruments and a scale of qualitative measurement to decode this information.] He and his team of experts found more than 50 energy points clustered around two power lines that cross right where the church of St Vida (St Vitus) sits in the middle of the forest.

They focused on 26 energy points that are clearly marked for specific ailments. Stand or sit at any of these points, arms relaxed, palms facing the ground, and you will feel the energy manifested as a warm, tingling sensation or a cool breeze. And if you don’t feel anything, then that particular spot is not for you.

I looked at the list of 26 energy points and made my selection. I didn’t want a conveyor belt experience. I wanted to treat the specifics.  I stopped first at No. 2 – just because stress is nasty. It was pleasant, but more because I was out in the forest rather than feeling any surge of energy. So, nothing I can’t manage myself, I thought. I stopped at No. 9 because I have cholesterol issues but I didn’t feel much by way of anything. I can stop worrying about that then.  Next I went to No. 15, the rheumatism and arthritis spot and after a few minutes in situ, my palms started to tingle and heat up. Damn, I thought, that pain I’ve been feeling is real. I then stopped at No. 24 – limb pain and muscle inflammation) – same thing. The full list is quite something and I’m sure something has gotten lost in translation.

1: Gallstones and kidney stones

2: Mental, emotional, stressful, depressive problems

3: General back pain

4: Leg ulcer diseases (arteries)

5: Small and large intestinal diseases, including hemorrhoids

6: Headaches, dizziness, vertigo

7: Respiratory diseases (trachea, lung inflammation)

8: Migraine problems and tension in the head

9: Diabetes, cholesterol, liver, pancreas, spleen

10: Skin diseases (inflammation, acne and psoriasis (psoriasis) [the recommended retention time on it is 30 minutes]

11: Strengthening the immune system

12: Vascular diseases (venous vessels) and varicose veins and knots

13: Chest problems, pleurisy

14: Cardiac vessels

15: Rheumatic diseases (rheumatism, arthritis)

16: Gastric, duodenal and colorectal inflammation (acid, ulcer)

17: Alcohol, tobacco, and drug addiction

18: Urinary system, prostate and fertility (inflammatory diseases)

19: Blood pressure

20: Eyes, ears and nose (inflammation), partly also of allergies

21: Gastrointestinal disorders (diarrhea and constipation, abdominal cramps and tension)

22: Respiratory allergies – bronchitis

23: Malignant or benign tumors

24: Limb pain (muscle inflammation and osteoporosis)

25: Strengthen and improve the blood count

26: Enhance life energy and increase frequency cell vibrations

The church of St Vida, at the centre of the energy lines, is like something out of a fairy tale. Back in WWII, there was a wooden structure on the site. During a battle not far from the chapel, one partisan managed to escape (they were hiding out in a local hunting lodge). Badly wounded, he crawled to this sanctuary. It was open then (unlike today). He didn’t expect to make it through the night but when he woke the next morning, all was well. Legend has it that he came back after the war and built the structure we see today.

Bukovniško St Vita's chapel

Not far from the church is the spring of St Vida. Bathing your eyes in the healing waters is said to improve your eyesight, and indeed local lore has it that many have been cured. Washing your hands and face can improve your skin. And drinking it is recommended to calm anxious nerves. GZs had done her homework so we’d brought empty bottles. But had we not, the information office has water cans for sale (when they’re open).

The lake itself is man made, and is about 2 metres deep. There’s a trail around it and a couple of picnic spots, too. It’s stocked with fish and fishing licences are available for purchase. All very relaxing on a cold November Saturday but I’d imagine it would be teeming on a hot week in August.

Bukovniško lake

Bukovniško lake

Bukovniško lake

As with anything good these days, there’s a caveat, a sort of disclaimer that says that one visit won’t do it. You need to come back a number of times within a short period. Not that I need much of an excuse to visit Slovenia. This weekend marks the beginning of a long-promised break, a chilling out period, time spent reflecting, reading, and writing. And if I can fit in a couple of more trips across the border – I’ll be even more grateful for the joys of village life and the access to other worlds that living so remotely affords.

 

PS There’s also quite a spectacular adrenaline park just at the entrance, one of the best I’ve seen. It would take about 2 hour to get around it and is suitable for ages 4 upwards.

 

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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 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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