Shifting geographical loyalties

Since I first left Ireland back in 1990, I’ve had two homes. ‘Home’ is wherever I happened to be living at a given moment in time; ‘home home’ is Ireland. (This double-word definition is something I use a lot – if you’re sick, you’ll recover, but if you’re sick sick, then the prognosis is a little more serious. If you’re broke, then you’re struggling to find the money for a pint at the weekend; if you’re broke broke, then it’s Raman noodles and water.)

Being Irish is a constant in my life – my North Star. It is the lens through which I see the world. It is the calibrating factor I use to measure my experiences, the people I meet, everything that happens to me. For years, I compared every city I lived in or visited to Ireland, or Dublin, or the village I come from. But this has changed.


On a trip to Moldova back in 2011, I noticed for the first time that I am no longer comparing places to Ireland, but to Hungary – and not just to Hungary, but specifically to Budapest. While I might enjoy occasional bursts of intelligence, at times my dimwittedness surprises even me! It never dawned on me that in comparing, say, Dublin and Budapest, I was dealing in apples and oranges.

Yes, both are capital cities, but apart from literature, religion, and the virtues of their respective national cohort of mothers, it was a little like, well, comparing East and West, back in the days when the divide was more than a line on a map.


This change in geographical loyalty was driven home again last week when I spent a few days in Prague.

When I first visited Prague back in 2001, it compared very favourably to Dublin. Georgian Dublin was no match for the spires of Prague; the narrow streets of Smithfield were no match for Prague’s Old Town; gentrified Dublin was no match for Prague’s more cosmopolitan style. I was impressed. Very impressed.

Yet since living more on than off in Budapest, I now see Prague through a different lens.  On paper, the two cities look fairly alike. In fact, if you picked up a map of both and laid them side by side, it’s quite interesting to see just how similar they are. They’re both divided by a river (Danube/Vltava). Both have an island in the middle (Margaret Island/Slovanský Island). Both have castle districts on the posher side (although Prague has an actual ‘castle’ castle in its district). The food is not dissimilar, the currency is just as foreign, and to my uncultured taste buds, beer is beer.


And yet the two cities are as different as any two cities can be. Scratch the surface and there’s little to compare. To my mind, Budapest is by far the better of the two. No question. I came to this conclusion in the metro of all places.

IMG_2862 (600x800)I’ve heard people visiting Budapest complain that the metro stairs are way too fast to be safe. I think the 2.1 minutes it takes to rise from the bowels of Széll Kálmán tér a little long so I didn’t understand their concerns. But in Prague, I felt myself age each time I took the metro. Its escalators are so slow in comparison. I reckon your average Prague commuter would gain about 10 minutes a day if they had the same commute in Budapest. But I’d doubt they’d be concerned. The city seems to lack that sense of urgency that can pervade Budapest at times. Perhaps it’s because everyone there is, literally, on holiday.

The one thing missing in Prague that you find in abundance in Budapest are locals. Prague seems to be overrun by tourists. Perhaps it’s because the streets are narrower that they seem more obvious, all squashed in together like bunioned feet into tight-fitting shoes.  Mind you, and perhaps as a direct result of this influx of foreign masses, Prague has a fashion sense that Budapest lacks. With a notable absence of second-hand clothes shops, your average woman looks like she’s dressed to go somewhere. Mind you, if said woman is not local, then perhaps I’m back to apples and oranges again.


The city’s most famous son, Franz Kafka, is on record as having said: Prague never lets you go… this dear little mother has sharp claws. And yet for all its style, Prague simply doesn’t do it for me in the way that Budapest does.

Admittedly, Budapest will never be in my blood the way Prague ran through Kafka’s veins. That said, it’s very much in my head and my heart. I’m well past my sell-by date when it comes to having kids and I can’t see myself settling down and living happily ever after with someone whose mother tongue I barely understand, let alone speak fluently: my paranoia that his great-Aunt Dóra would spend family get-togethers talking incessantly about me would kill the relationship before our first pig roast. Anyway, as the blood bank doesn’t want my blood, the whole Budapest-in-blood issue has been nixed. But head and heart are another matter entirely.

First published in the Budapest Times 5 April 2013


Bemused by Bath

I’ve been to Bath many times, but never really as a tourist. I’d never taken the hop-on, hop-off tour bus or even visited the Royal Crescent. I’d not been to any of the museums or taken afternoon tea. So spending a few days there in the company of the lovely MI, was a treat.

When you begin to scratch the surface and get past the tiered cake trays and afternoon teas, Bath has some interesting tales to tell. ThePulteney Bridge, for instance, is one of just four such structures remaining in the world. Designed by Robert Adam rumour has it that it might have been based on the  Palladio’s  design for the Rialto in Venice (the one that was rejected!)

Up at the Royal Crescent, the original thirty owners of the building only bought a length of the façade, and then built what they liked behind it. The lovely curve of the crescent visible from the front, turns into quite a higgedly piggedly mix of all sorts. Surprise, surprise, there is a name for this type of architecture: Queen Anne fronts and Mary-Anne backs.

In the squares around Bath Abbey, opera singers ply their trade as tourists and locals alike perch on the benches and enjoy their lunch or afternoon tea. This juxtaposition of formality and informality is just one of the many things that makes Bath interesting.  Way back in January 1539 Bath Priory was surrendered to the Crown. The church was stripped everything that could be moved – lead, iron and glass – and left to die. But the citizens of Bath rallied round – even if it was nearly a generation later – and rescued it.

The grandeur that is Bath is evident everywhere you turn. And the wholesomeness of life is there to see. Food festivals, home-brewed ciders, homemade cheese, farmers markets and boutique shops, the city reeks of individuality. While it does pay homage to globalisation and gives street space to national High street chains, there is still plenty of originality to be found.

There’s a quirkiness about the place that keeps you wondering. Was I really looking into an old Georgian library at a man in from the 1800s sitting reading a book? And despite its righteousness, it was here that the world’s first postmark was stamped on May 2nd 1840.  Rowland Hill ’s  penny black stamps had been distributed to post office around the country for the grand launch on 6 May, but Bath’s  main Post Office on Broad Street rather cheekily grabbed its place in history and started selling them four days earlier. It’s a gobsmackingly gorgeous city and one in which I’ll be keeping an eye on property prices.

Three cheers for Miss Philippa

When I look back at my travel career, I note with interest my progression from self-catering  to fully catered, from B&Bs to boutique hotels. Of late, I’ve favoured apartment rentals, which afford extra space and the use of an oven. But hiring out a whole house – all five floors – is something new to me and I now fear that once I’ve been there, it will be quite difficult to go back.

Elton House is bang, smack in the centre of Bath sandwiched between the Crystal Palace pub and Bijoux Beads, with an address of 2 Abbey Street. Dating back to 1700, it has had a varied history. Originally owned by the Duke of Kingston, it served its time as sets of lodgings for Georgian visitors to Bath around 1750 and when, in 1946, its new owner, Ms Philippa Savery, bought up the individual leases, it housed 12 tenants and had a cobblers shop in the basement. Ms Savery was in search of somewhere that she could sell antiques from and what better location than downtown Bath. She started off as a rent collector for the building and in time became its sole owner. She donated it to the Landmark Trust in 1986.

Here, in the heart of Jane Austen country, it didn’t take much imagination to envision the likes of Mr Darcy calling to the door. But wait – Pride and Prejudice wasn’t set in Bath – perhaps Mr Tilney calling might be slightly more realistic. Sitting the one of the drawing rooms, curled up with a good book, albeit in a rather unladylike fashion, the 1800s didn’t seem so very far away.

The house has a museum of sorts on the ground floor and then a very impressive wooden staircase that goes up and down from the main entrance. The first floor houses the kitchen, dining room, and two parlours. The second has six bedrooms. The third another bedroom and three bathrooms. And then there are the two floors of the attic. The place is rife with nooks and crannies and interesting features  and is very simply but functionally furnished. The walls are hung with portraits which, according to entries in the visitors’ book, have scared many a young guest who had the distinct feeling that the eyes in the portraits kept following them around. Other entries mention ghosts and legend has it that the house is haunted by a little white terrier.

For three days, Elton House was our base. It had been rented out for the weekend by MC and on Friday and Saturday night, it was full of guests. Sunday night though, it was just the two of us and what a treat. I’ve always thought I was born into the wrong era and now I’m almost sure it, assuming of course that I was upstairs rather than downstairs. I don’t think I’d have been too keen to manage those stairs when summonsed by the pull of a bellchord.

The Landmark Trust is a charity that rescuses endangered buildings such as Elton House and give them new life. It pays for the upkeep of its charges by renting them out to visitors. I’d had a vague idea of what they did (there’s also a US version) but had never experienced it first hand before. And now that I have, I can see many more holidays taking shape. What a way to fuel an imagination.

Next time though, I must remember to pack my parasol. Note to De Wimmin:  This would be such a good place to meet up.