Moving city

It’s been a long time since I’ve visited a city I thought I might live in. No matter how fleeting the thought, it was there. Riga might have its problems (what city doesn’t) – it’s a curious mix of old style and new money with the former making up for the bad taste of the latter – and yet it’s decidedly attractive.

Famed for its Art Nouveau, it’s thought that 40% of the buildings in Riga are in this style – the most of any city in Europe. The style was at its peak of popularity when Riga experienced a financial boom and the building regulations were relaxed – the architects of that period had a field-day. There were a couple of places I wouldn’t mind living opposite. For instance, I don’t think I’d ever tire of looking across Alberta iela at this building.

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And some I wouldn’t mind living in. Imagine looking out this window every morning – mind you, from what I remember, the view is a building that houses the Design Company Frank & Stein. That could wear old pretty soon.

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Elsewhere in the city, it’s hard not to stop and gawk – literally. There is so much of interest to look at. Walking the streets is like being on one long treasure hunt – just when you think you’ve found the most amazing building, you find another, even more beautiful.

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Yet as you walk through the city and out to the suburbs, there’s a curious mix of old wooden buildings trying in vain to hold their ground in the face of modern development. Splashes of tired, resigned colours offer a more subtle balance to the screaming attention-seeking oranges and greens of the new builds.

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Some are just crying out for a little attention as the valuable real estate around them is sold off to developers and private individuals with plenty of money and very little taste. I’ve bitched about this before taking Gozo as a case in point. And I was still bitching as I walked the streets of Āgenskalna priedes, a suburb across the Daugana River much neglected by the guide book. It was here, though, that I actually stopped, considered, and then applauded this creative melding of old and new.

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IMG_3942 (590x800)There are some hideous examples of new trying to look old – I wonder if there’s an architectural equivalent of the idiom ‘you can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear’? Although I number two architects amongst my close friends, I don’t claim to know anything at all about their profession. Like art itself, I simply know what I like… and don’t like. And I found this type of ostentation offensive. A strong word, perhaps, but honestly… if you have that much money, build your castle in the country. Miles from anywhere.

IMG_3933 (599x800)This didn’t work for me, either. Although the intent to blend in was clearly visible, I wanted to scream ‘Have some confidence! Be yourself! Don’t try to ape yer man next door!’ But then, in fairness, when this does happen and when the new monstrosities appear, I’m the first to bitch and moan about them. Strange… when I’m so easily pleased most of the time. When I looked back at some of the many photos I took, I noticed that I am more fascinated with old, run-down decrepit buildings than I am with the newer ones. Give me peeling paint over a gloss veneer any day. I wonder what I’m projecting? Perhaps there’s material there just crying out for analysis.

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Yet the juxtaposition of old and new still fascinates me and I wonder if anyone else really gives a toss?

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And yet another Budapest discovery

One of the many reasons I like living in this city is its discoverability. Just when I think I’ve seen it all, I find somewhere new or I hear about somewhere new or I’m taken somewhere new. Some weeks ago, having failed to secure entry to the Alumni etterem beside the College of Commerce, BA and myself found ourselves wandering the streets looking for a cup of coffee. We happened upon Bedő Ház, a lovely Art Nouveau café on Honvéd utca just off Szabadság tér and around the corner from Kossuth Lajos tér. The entire building (apartments currently for sale upstairs)  was designed by Emil Vidor and built in 1903 and is now a fitting showcase for Hungarian Secessionist interiors. It’s heaving with all sorts of furniture, china, paintings, posters, and other items from the period.

It’s as if all your great-aunts got together and put all their furniture in the one room. Having coffee there is like stepping back in time. A wonderful experience. And, if the mood takes you, you can buy tickets for the museum and explore the maze of other stuff on display. ‘Twas enough for me to take a wander downstairs to the loo and see the anteroom.

There are some curious font-like things hanging on the wall and the second time I visited, I polled the women to see what they thought they were. Urinals? Holy Water fonts? or just ordinary water fonts?  Any sort of hybrid is simply unimaginable.

As you sit quietly (it’s certainly a place that evokes a sense of gentility – more of a polite chuckle than a raucous belly laugh) enjoying the surrounds, your eye catches more and more detail. The hazi limonade is tangy and the coffee isn’t half bad. I can’t say I’ve tried the pastries, but they look good enough to eat. Well worth a visit if you’re in the vicinity and yet another place to add to your ‘what do to with visitors’ list. And when you’re outside, look up and check out the sunflower detail in the ironwork on the balcony. Am coveting…

Apple ice-cream at Palić lake

In 2008, Ken Loach won the prestigious European Film Festival award. If you are a fan, it might also have registered with you that the festival takes place, each year, in  Palić, a little village about 8km outside Subotica in Serbia. If you’re not a fan, and you’re not Serbian, then you’re excused from never having heard of the place. And if you ever find yourself in Subotica and want to venture forth, then take the No. 6 bus … but remember that in this part of the world, you enter at the back of the bus and pay the man sitting in the booth. The driver… drives. Quite the division of labour. If you do as we did, be prepared to be assaulted by a passenger chorus which is both unintelligble and a little intimidating.

Owl Castle

The village sits on the edge of Palić lake and is home to about 8000 people, most of them ethnic Hungarians. It has about 450 guesthouses/villas, so it’s a fair guess what most of them do for a living. The Hungarian style of Art Nouveau is well represented and is probably why the village is said to have a Disney feel to it. It would take very little imagination to see Rapunzel dropping her hair down the side of Owl Castle, or to envisage a 1920s Gatsby-style cocktail party in the grounds of the Grand Terrace. It really is rather pretty and with 17km of bike paths, it’s a nice place to spend an afternoon. If you’re that way inclined, that is. I’m not. So I settled for wandering the paths, testing the surprisingly good, neon green, apple ice-cream, and reading the notices. Mind you, if I had kids, I’d consider it for a holiday – pedal boats and beaches, bikes and bikebuggies, and the zoo just around the corner. And did I mention the ice-cream?

The Grand Terrace

I learned a lot by reading the notices. For instance, I didn’t know that in 1956, the village was home to a refugee camp for Hungarians fleeing from Hungary. Makes sense, really; the area was once inside the Hungarian borders. Even more interesting though is what I found when I went to find out more! I never knew that 541 Hungarians took refuge in Ireland in 1956, in a camp at Knocknalisheen in Limerick. And while I never cease to marvel how much I don’t know, at times I really wonder where I’ve been most of my life.

All roads into the ‘resort’ fan out from the Water Tower and standing with your back to the lake, if you take the road on the far right, you’ll pass the Hungarian Embassy – or at least that’s what I think it is. But then I could have sworn I saw one in Subotica, too. Perhaps this is the summer residence.

The local post office

All along that row stand what must have been Communist Party villas in the early 1900s. A large number are now small hotels – each one beautifully maintained. All rather splendid and sedate. Even the local post office is something to write home about – and following my own particular word association there, Palić, like Subotica, is devoid of postcards. Neither town appears to attract foreigners, as we were told when we went to see the excellent ‘Love it or Leave it‘ exhibition of contemporary art from the region, and when we had a guided tour of the American Corner.

Although the sun was beating down and messing with my photographs (I really must get that thingy that shades the lense), the haziness did lend an ‘other worldy’ feel to the place.

It was Friday – and it was quiet. I can only image what it’s like at the weekends. There were a couple of villas for sale and the thought did cross my mind that I still have that retreat B&B on my bucket list. I have no difficulty at all imagining myself coming down this stairs to breakfast every morning. And it’s when inside starts to affect the outside that things go well with the world. At least, that’s what the skinny me told the huszi me, as I held up a size XL and wondered what sort of stick insect would fit into a Serbian XS. I guess I’m just not prepared to give up the apple ice-cream.