Just popping next door

Growing up in Ireland, living on the continent had an allure that would eventually prove irresistible. Hearing something described as ‘continental’, be it a look, a style, a food, seemed so exotic. While the islanders of Ireland and the UK spoke English, the Continentals spoke it with an accent that made them seem other-worldly. I was enthralled. It was only a matter of time before I ended up in mainland Europe.

I like having freedom to roam, being able to get on a train or into a car and go. And with Hungary being smack bang in the centre of Europe, I’m living in my version of travel heaven.

Last week, we popped next door, into Slovakia. Although a long-time fan of Bratislava, I’ve only recently discovered the delights of Košice (Kassa). This was our second visit and this time, we were simply passing through on our way to the High Tatras.

img_7183_easy-resize-comOne of the many lovely birthday presents I received this year was a four-day train pass to the mountains. It covered the return trip from Budapest to Štrba and then the use of the local Tatranská elektrická železnica (TEŽ), the electric railway, and the Ozubnicová železnica (OŽ), the cogwheel railway. With six different routes to choose from, you can get on or off at any one of the many villages and towns en route. Both run like clockwork. To the minute. And neither goes exceptionally fast.

img_7143_easy-resize-comWe spent the first night in the lovely town of Poprad-Tatry, a haven of penzións and hotels, seventeenth-century burgher houses, and the stunning altars of the Church of St George. It’s close to Tatranská Lomnica, home to a series of cable cars, chairlifts, and a funicular by which you can ascend the highest peak, Lomnický štít, if you don’t fancy climbing it on foot.

img_7075_easy-resize-comThe second night we stayed between the two villages of Sibír and Nový Smokovec, the latter of which is home to the massive Royal Palace, built in 1925 as a sanatorium and sadly now looking remarkably empty. It still features on hotel booking sites so perhaps it simply hasn’t yet opened for the season. Both villages are quite typical of the region – lots of accommodation, a few restaurants, and a couple of churches take a back seat to the myriad hiking trails, walking paths, and cycle routes, all of which are helpfully signposted with the length of time it should take to get from A to B.

Photo by Steve Jacobs

Photo by Steve Jacobs

My favourite spot was Štrbské Pleso. Its mountain lake is frozen for 155 days of the year. Just over one-kilometre-long and about 600 metres wide, it’s nearly 1400 metres above sea level. It’s a major spot on the competitive winter sports circuit (I’d like to see a snow polo game as I’m having a hard time imagining horses on ice) and attracts thousands to its slopes.

In summer and autumn, the area is a haven for Nordic walkers. Young and old alike are kitted out in the brightest and the best of gear. The popular trails are easily identified by the legion of cars parked along roads in what seems like the middle of nowhere. The place oozes good health. Bars and cafés with their outdoor seating, chairs lined with sheepskin rugs, provide a nice reprieve.

We spent the last night in Košice, as options for trains back to Budapest are few and we had an early start. There are only two direct trains – one leaves at 6am, a second at 6pm. All others go via Bratislava and take more than 10 hours so be careful.

We’re already planning another trip next door for the Tatry Ice Master in Hrebienok in January, when the High Tatras will be at their best. If you want to escape the city madness, get yourself a pass and head to the mountains.

First published in the Budapest Times 7 October 2016

Break for the border

I have an innate distrust of guide books, the well-known names in the travel world. I doubt if the authors have ever even been to the places they write about. I dislike their sameness. I prefer to find books written by locals, books that talk about the depth of a place rather than gloss over the superficial elements designed for photo opportunities and postcards.

Years ago in Venice, we wandered around with Tiziano Scarpa’s Venice is a Fish. Sadly, I lent the book to a friend whose flat was burgled; the burglar was obviously planning on taking a trip there, too, as he made off with my mate’s laptop and my copy of this brilliant little book. I bought it because I was struck by the blurb: With everything from practical advice for aspiring Venetian lovers to hints at where to find the best bacaro, Scarpa waves the tourist in the right direction and, without naming a single restaurant, hotel or bar, relates the secret language needed to experience the real Venice. So ignore the street signs – why fight the labyrinth? Excellent.

A couple of weekends ago, on the second of my Border Dashes this year, we headed to Košice, a city in Eastern Slovakia known more familiarly in Hungary as Kassa. We caught the 6.30 am train from Keleti Station on Saturday morning and arrived at our destination around 10 am.

We’d booked into the lovely Penzión Hradbová, close to the Dominican Church. Newly refurbished it has a great little spa and offers a cooked breakfast in the morning. The staff are friendly, helpful, and on call 24/7. Recommended.

Bags dropped, we headed to the Tourist Information Office. With just 36 hours to see as much as possible, we thought a walking tour would be a good place to start. It was here that we found a gem: a bi-lingual guidebook. Milan Kolcun’s Details in Košice. A sequel to Wanders in Košice, it focuses on the details that are so often overlooked. It tells story after story of the little things worth looking for.  We bought both and sat for an hour over coffee at the fabulous secessionist Hotel Slavia on the town’s main street, where we picked out what we’d like to see and plotted our route. Our picks were not included in the two-hour walking tour we had later that day so we really did get to see a lot.

IMG_4396 (1280x960)IMG_4292 (800x600)From the grandeur of St Elisabeth’s Cathedral to the barrenness of Miklus Prison, from the treasury of gold coins discovered in 1935 to the splendour of the botanical gardens, the city is made for walking. We tracked down the military shoe tree, the gargoyle of the ugly woman captured by the water goblin, and the stonework on the old Thalia theatre. We wandered the backstreets tracing the footsteps of the great poet Sándor Márai. We found craftsman’s row and promised ourselves to come back when everything was open. And we lucked out and got to see the heart-wrenching inscription preserved on the wall of the synagogue.

IMG_4458 (800x600)IMG_4461 (1280x960)Košice is home of the oldest marathon outside of Greece. It has a world-renowned opera house that attracts big names (the programme is worth keeping an eye on). And it has the best pizza this side of Naples. I kid you not: the pizza at ZaZza Pizza is worth the train ticket alone.

Sunday evening we were ready to head back to Budapest. According to Máv (both the website and the ticket agent) our train was to leave at 18.30. Remembering our near miss when in Subotica recently, I asked the Penzión to triple-check. Máv was wrong – again. Beware. The one train of the day leaves for Budapest at 18.02. Am sure there is nothing in any guidebook about that!

First published in the Budapest Times  29 April 2016

Sitting still

A good way of getting to know a city, without resorting to guide books, is to read a fictional novel that’s set there. Another way, is to find someone famous who was born there and then following their story. Banksy in Bristol is a good example of this. And in Košice recently, Sándor Márai  provided another ready-made treasure hunt.

Somewhat famous for being the first person to write reviews of Kafka’s work, Márai is probably better known for his 1948 novel, Embers, which published in English in 2000. It’s original Hungarian title is more fetching I think… A gyertyák csonkig égnek (candles burn until the end). It’s about an old general and his friend from the military academy who reunite over dinner after 41 years of not seeing each other.

In 2006, Jeremy Irons and Patrick Malahide played the stage version in the Duke of York in London. [Irons hadn’t been on stage in 18 years and his return was eagerly anticipated.] Its original run was extended by four weeks due to popular demand but the critics’ reviews were mixed.  Christopher Hampton’s stage adaptation of the novel was billed as one that explores ‘the eroticism of male friendship’. I’ve had the book on my shelf for years and have yet to open it.

IMG_4421 (800x600)IMG_4419 (800x600)Fascinating, isn’t it, how someone who has once found fame in their native language can, nearly half a century later, be famous all over again in another. And even more fascinating is the thought of all the books out there still to be translated into English. [I have my favourites of those that have been.]

IMG_4287 (800x600)IMG_4219 (800x600)IMG_4298 (800x600)IMG_4297 (800x590)IMG_4221 (800x600)Anyway, as I said, Márai’s years in his home town left a trail to follow and explore. From his birthplace on Bočná st to his studio in the old Thália Theatre, a lovely old frescoed building, to Maleter’s House whence he kidnapped his bride-to-be, the lovely Lola. Or the confectionary where he first met Lola during an ice-cream competition (am not sure if they were eating it or making it). Then there’s the Premonstratensians School he attended and the family home where the commemorative room is now housed.

I had to Google Premonstratensians. They’re known in Ireland as the White Canons (a new one on me) and are what’s called Canons Regular (another new one) – monks who live in the community under the order of St Augustine. Why didn’t I know that? But even more interestingly, they actually work for a living: they’ve created and operate small industrial activities such as printing (Averbode, Tongerlo, Berne), farming (Kinshasa, Ireland, Postel), cheese-making (Postel), running schools (Averbode, Berne, USA, Australia), agreements with breweries (Tongerlo, Postel, Park, Leffe, Grimbergen), retreat centres (nearly everywhere), astronomical observatories (Mira, Grimbergen), artistic bookbinding (Oosterhout), forestry (Schlägl, Geras, Slovakia) and pilgrimages (Conques). That’s a change.

And as we wandered looking for these landmarks, we saw the wealth of architecture the city has to offer. There IMG_4278 (800x600)really is a surprise around every corner. And the added attraction is that it’s all walkable.

What is a tad peculiar though, is the tram line on the main street. No longer in use, it creates a certain expectation that something might be coming at any IMG_4375 (800x600)IMG_4319 (800x600)minute. There’s a watchfulness about the place, a sense of anticipation, that feeling that just about anything could happen. Magical.

One of the many fanciful notions I have is that inside every statue is a real person, trapped for eternity in whatever position their maker has chosen for them. I’ve spent way too much time thinking about how I’d like to be immortalised in bronze. The idea of a full-sized me in a full-sized bed reading a full-sized book was high on my list for a while, but given that my IMG_4279 (600x800)back has been acting up lately, even that comfortable notion isn’t as attractive as it once was.

I quite like the relatively recent (2004) sculpture of Márai that is tucked away on a quiet square on the corner of Zbrojničná and Mäsiarska. It’s of him sitting on a chair, legs crossed, as if
in conversation with whomever chooses to sit in the empty chair opposite him.  It doesn’t look the most comfortable of poses, but think of the great conversations you could have with him, the best of listeners; thinkg of all the confessions he must have heard, a little like Jozef Attila in Budapest. Anyway, it’s been filed as an option. But first, I need to do something that will give the world reason to cast me in bronze and plonk me somewhere for eternity.

Tell me a story

I like a good story. I like facts and figures, too, but I’d prefer a good story any day. Give me something I will remember. Like the one about the miller’s daughter in Košice who fell in love with a man who didn’t love her back. Nothing new there, I hear you say. She was so upset that she decided life wasn’t worth living. She jumped into the water at the mill-race, determined to put an end to her misery.

IMG_4290 (600x800)Now in the mill-race lived a water goblin. He took a fancy to yer woman and pulled her deep into the waters. Her body never floated to the surface. A year later, a coach driver was passing by in an awful hurry. He was taking a midwife to assist in the birth of some local nobility. But as they approached the mill-race, the coach swung off course and drove down into the waters. Soon after, the Košice water babies were born. Today, the water goblin lives by the willows and only ever shows himself to children. What exactly all this has to do with the ugly face on the facade of a Secession style house opposite where the old mill-race used to be … that bit got lost in translation.

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While the town is awash with ugly gargoyles, it also has a few patron saints and protectors hidden away in niches. The theory behind these is that each of us has our own saint – presumably someone whom we are called after. I get two – Mary and Martha – which perhaps explains my split personality. Even if we’re orphaned, we still have someone looking out for us.  This statue of Our Lady is one of the few to survive 40 years of socialism and interestingly, sits atop a house that is currently up for sale… mmmm.

IMG_4426 (800x600)IMG_4275 (800x600)IMG_4302 (600x800)IMG_4304 (800x600)Elsewhere, throughout the town, there is plenty to look up at and look out for. So many nooks and crannies, so much going on. Košice is a gem of a town, one that’s made for walking around. The weather was cooperating and the coffee was good.

Another story we heard was that of the shoe tree in the park on Moyzesova Street. Back in the day, military service was part and parcel of life in Slovakia. Young men had to do their two years.   They would leave home, perhaps for the first time, at a young age. Families and girlfriends stayed behind as they went to do their duty. God only knows what met them. Hazing, bullying, lonely nights wondering what they’d done to deserve it all. Enlisting is one thing; conscription an other. On their last night in the barracks, with freedom just one sleep away, they’d hurl their military boots out the window, readying to don their civvies in the morning and return to the real world. If you look up, you can still see some shoes hanging from the lime trees.

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IMG_4329 (600x800)IMG_4305 (800x600)The bell tower, too, has its story. When the Germans were in town, the locals wanted rid of them. One local landowner from Perín rallied the masses. Groups of locals gathered secretly, plotting to overthrow their occupiers. One day, a couple of boys got into a serious fight. Punches were flailing and the two were going at it. As they were dragged apart by an onlooker, one of them turned to the other and taunted – you wait, you just wait till the farmer from Perín gets you; there’ll really be a war now.

Unfortunately for them, they were overheard and taken in for questioning.  They told all. The city gates were closed and the local fomenters rounded up and tasked with building a bell tower for Urban’s bell. The tower was built without scaffolding. Many prisoners died. There was only so high people were prepared (or able) to go. Today, on the northern side of the tower, you can see statues of two small children – a reminder of the two young lads who betrayed the town.

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IMG_4273 (566x800)Of all the stories I heard though, my favourite has to be about the beggar’s house. There’s a story going about the town that there was once a beggar who begged his way to a fortune. Enough to buy him this house. And while this is a great story, it’s simply that – a story.

While I think of it – Back in 1980, Senegalese author Aminata Sow Fall won the Grand Prix de Litterature de l’Afrique Noire and was shortlisted for France’s Prix Goncourt for her book The Beggars’ Strike. A brilliant satire on giving alms.

But back to my beggar’s house in Košice. It was built in 1898 by the Jakabs, a well-to-do construction family. And if you look closely at the man he’s more like a merchant than a beggar – given the purseful of money on his belt. The harvest scene painted on the facade is also another nod to prosperity. I must admit, though, I prefer the man-made-good story.

And on stories, seventeenth-century Spanish playwright, Pedro Calderon de la Barca, had this to say: What is life? An illusion, a shadow, a story. And the greatest good is little enough: for all life is a dream, and dreams themselves are only dreams.  Enough said.


Guns and altars

There’s something fascinating about seeing stuff made out of other stuff. Handbags made from bicycle tyres. Wallets made from plastic bags. Altars made from guns. Yep – I did a double-take and checked whether I’d heard that one right. An altar made from guns, indeed.

IMG_4225 (800x600)IMG_4248 (600x800)St Elizabeth’s Cathedral in Košice is the largest church in Slovakia. You could spend an entire morning or afternoon in there and still not see everything there is to see. The Gothic spiral staircase is a case in point. Built in 1425, two staircases wind upwards in opposite directions, meeting  four times. On Valentine’s Day, apparently, couples queue up to climb the stairs, kissing when they meet  on their ascent.  The stairs are used as a metaphor – parting lovers reuniting and parting again, but each time they meet rising higher IMG_4247 (598x800)perhaps in expectation and ideals. A nice twist on church fundraising.

The large balcony hosts a place for private prayer. The King’s Oratory is home to a 7 m crucifix with larger-than-life figures of Jesus, Our Lady, and St John. The balcony bears an inscription reminding all who can read it that Ladislaus the Posthumous is the rightful successor to the Hungarian throne. [Ladislaus was crowned king at the age of 12 weeks.]  It’s all quite something to look up at.

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The high altar of St Elizabeth is gobsmackingly gorgeous with its 48 pictures painted by unknown artists. It is the only preserved altar of its kind in Europe. The double-sided painted panels are open and closed depending on the Church calendar. It’s  very unusual, given the predominance of women depicted in the paintings; it’s certainly one for the sisters.

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IMG_4245 (800x600)IMG_4246 (800x600)The large, upside-down chandelier speaks of the arrival of electricity to the town. In 1913, the candles were replaced by lightbulbs. It also needed something to hang from. The powers that be at the time thought a replica of St Stephen’s Crown would do the trick as back then, Košice was still part of Hungary. How quickly things change.

There are all sort of murals and paintings on the walls. Some have been restored to their former glory; others are still in the process of being restored, the layers of time quite visible.

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For a while the Cathedral belonged to the Protestants and then to the Catholics. And naturally, when one or the other laid claim, quarrels ensued. Back on 4 September 1619, the Calvinists made a play for the Cathedral and the three Catholic priests in residence, one Polish (Melichar Grodiecki), one Hungarian (István Pongrác), one Croatian (Marek Krizin).  They promised to spare their lives if they recanted their Catholic beliefs. But they wouldn’t. Three days later, all three were killed. The martyrs were beatified nearly 300 years after their death. The altar to them was built in 1923. They were canonised by Pope John Paul II when he visited in 1995.

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The statue work is exquisite. I was  taken by this statue of Our Lady – one of the first I’ve seen of her in such a reflective mood. Another caught my eye. My old friend, Sára Salkaházi, the feisty, chain-smoking rebel who signed up to the Sisters of Social Service and met an early death at the hands of the Arrow Cross in Budapest on 27 December 1944. I’d forgotten she was from Kassa (Hungarian for Košice).  I hope she won’t have to wait as long for her canonisation.

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This is the altar though that is made from guns, guns melted down after WWI (I think it was that war… ).  A much better use, I’d say.

IMG_4234 (800x594)There is so much more to see in the church. And if you get a chance to hear the organ being played, so much the better. I was more than a little amused at the thoughts of candles by the minute. I suppose cost efficiencies are the way of the world and I shouldn’t be at all surprised that the old wax candles are being replaced by cleaner, more affordable lights. But it just ain’t the same  in my book. Thankfully, there are three churches in Budapest that I know of where you can still light an old-fashioned candle, even if the price of same is far outstripping inflation.


The writing on the wall

For some inexplicable reason, I have a strange fascination with the Holocaust. I can’t quite get my head around so many people being systematically put to death. I can’t even begin to fathom how others could stand by and let it happen. And deep down, there’s the ever-present question: What would I have done had I been around then? Read more