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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

When the border beckons

One of the best things about living in Hungary is that it’s within easy access of fascinating destinations that make exploring the wider neighbourhood very appealing.  When I have a rare free weekend with no plans whatsoever, my feet start to itch. I could stay home and file. Or sort my socks. Or colour code my library. But if the borders beckon, I can’t resist. I don’t even try.

One of my favourite 36-hour getaways is to cross the Serbian border into Subotica (Szabadka to Hungarians). We caught the 8.05 train from Keleti Station on Saturday morning having booked into the cute little Hotel Gloria in the middle of the city. It’s within walking distance from the station and has its own modest spa that I usually have to myself: a Jacuzzi, steam room, and sauna with complimentary robes, slippers, and towels.  The staff there are marvellous: friendly, helpful, and very professional.

Exiting the train station, the view of the art nouveau Raichle House is stunning and but it’s just a taste of what’s to come. The Town Hall and the Synagogue are even more amazing, both built in the same style by Budapest architects Marcell Komor and Dezső Jakab. They’re gobsmackingly gorgeous by day, but even more impressive by night. Sadly, the Zsolnay tile fountain is under wraps for winter. It, too, is magnificent.
IMG_3090 (600x800)Both the Franciscan Monastery and the Serbian Orthodox Church are worth some time. Both are beautiful.  In marked contrast, the Roman Catholic Cathedral has an alarming crack down the façade that conjures up all sorts of terrifying images as to what might happen one day.

IMG_3080 (800x600)IMG_3082 (800x600)We took the bus out to Palic Lake late afternoon, travelling back in time to days when women in long dresses and parasols strolled around this great expanse of now frozen water. We stopped off at a local pub to the amusement of the Hungarian-speaking locals who were fascinated by an Irish woman (badly) speaking their language in Serbia. And, as always, the warmth of Serbian hospitality melted my bones.

That night, having secured a reservation at Boss Caffe, we ate in style. Zang, their Chinese chef, has been doing great things for Chinese cuisine in the region for about seven years. Most of the menu is Italian, but I’d been dreaming of his eggplant chips and beef fillet with spicy zucchini since my last visit. The restaurant is at the high end of the local market but it’s relatively inexpensive, with service that is unmatched in my experience. Someone should poach Felix and have him set up a training school for wait staff in the rest of the world.

IMG_3084 (600x800)Serbians love their coffee and know how to serve it. The Hausbrandt Caffe does a great trade in imported Italian coffees served with good conversation and a smile and they saw a lot of us. Best Food, a Serbian fast food restaurant that would make a small fortune in franchise, enticed us back twice for their mouth-watering sandwiches and local meats cooked to order by … yes … friendly, efficient staff that negotiated the language barrier with both ease and interest.

We caught the 15.22 train back to Budapest on Sunday having had a lazy morning searching for the new monument to a favourite Hungarian poet, Kosztolányi Dezső. And as had happened on the way in, the train sat for 45 minutes about 100 m out of the station while passports were checked. Then, across the border in Hungary, some 10 km later, we sat for another 45 minutes while passports were checked again and customs did their bit. Disturbingly, this time, the hotel had given us a stamped form that we had to surrender on exit showing that we’d be registered as foreign visitors. A dark patch on an otherwise glorious 36 hours.

First published in the Budapest Times 19 February 2016

Making memories

When you work as freelancer, weekends and national holidays mean nothing. There are no set summer holidays, no half-terms, no winter breaks. There are no set long weekends, three-day weeks, or working Saturdays. It’s all in the hands of the workflow gods. Some weeks are quieter than others. The rhythm that most lives have is something I have long-since forgotten. Were my life a musical score, it would be a cacophonous tune running parallel with a sublime melody. I’d not have it any other way.

August is my between-term vacation. Most of my clients are on holiday too, so the work slows to a trickle and my choices are two: I can stay in Budapest and bake, or get out of dodge and travel.

One of the many joys of living in this city is how accessible it is. Planes, trains, or automobiles ‒ whatever your chosen mode of transport, there is so much to do, so much to see, and all within easy reach.

I spent a lovely Saturday afternoon in the forest at Gödöllő. Monday took me to Siófok, to the Balaton. Thursday found me in Dublin. That’s the beauty of being able to work from wherever you can find an Internet connection.

IMG_7845 (800x600)

IMG_7847 (800x600)A day-trip to Szentendre on the Hév or by river is a well-known escape from the oppressive heat of the city. But what about Ráckeve? It’s a lovely little town on the banks of the Danube down on Csepel Island also accessible by Hév. Get there for the Saturday market and enjoy a potter around, making sure to visit the incredibly gorgeous fresco-secco in the Catholic church of St John the Baptist. There’s a wonderful story about the wooden bridge that was built across the river, a story worth repeating:

‘You have got a nice occupation’ said the little child to the old bridge builder. ‘It might be difficult to build bridges, but if someone learnt it, it is easy’ said the old bridge builder. ‘It is easy to build a bridge of concrete and steel. Building other bridges is more difficult…’ ‘What other bridges?’ asked the little child. ‘Building bridges from one person to another, from darkness to light, from sadness to joy. I would like to build bridges to the happy future.’ The little child said: ‘It’s a special thing you do.’

IMG_3289 (600x800)Further afield, heading towards Austria by car to another bridge, is an amazing open air sculpture exhibition that lines the narrow road leading to the Bridge at Andau, the escape route taken by thousands fleeing Hungary in 1956. It is a chilling (and timely) reminder about the lengths people will go to, to make a better life for them and theirs.  The artwork is what remains of a 1996 exhibition along what’s known as the Road to Freedom and originally featured 90 pieces of work entitled The Road of Woes. Just a few miles outside the village of Andau along the Austrian/Hungarian border, it’s well worth the drive.

In the opposite direction, my favourite train destination is an Art Nouveau Serbian town known to Hungarians as Szabadka and to Serbs as Subotica. The birthplace of Hungarian writer and poet Kosztolányi Deszo, it’s not far from Palić Lake, home to the European Film Festival and the best apple ice-cream you will ever taste. This gem of a place has lured me back time and time again. In fact, I think I’m overdue a trip, where dinner at the delectable Boss restaurant will be my reward at the end of the three-hour train journey. That’s me sorted.

Whatever you do this summer, enjoy yourself. And take the time to make some memories. We know not what the future has in store.

First published in the Budapest Times 31 July 2015

 

Comments and their consequences

Dining out alone one evening lately, I got into conversation with a couple of Canadian tourists who were on a driving holiday through the region. They seemed very impressed with Budapest, so I didn’t feel the need to switch into ambassadorial gear and sing its praises. We agreed that Prague, while interesting, was simply too full of tourists to be enjoyable. And we shared similar impressions of Vienna as an aging dowager who had lost some of her joie de vivre.

They still had two weeks left of their tour and were in the process of planning their route to Zagreb. I’m a pathetic poker player. If a thought registers in my head, it’s clearly visible on my face. I have learned to immediately shift into self-correction mode, and I am getting faster at adjusting the image presented, but if you’re looking at me and paying attention, I’m like an open book. They were looking at me and they were paying attention; they registered and correctly interpreted my ‘Zagreb? Are you mad?’ look.

I had hoped to be let off lightly with a blasé ‘as a city, it just doesn’t do it for me’ but they were obviously looking forward to their visit and my careless reaction had thrown a big wet blanket on their enthusiasm. I had been introduced to them by the restaurant manager as someone who travels extensively and they wanted details.

IMG_1447 (800x600)Zagreb really doesn’t do it for me. I thought it tired, listless, and somewhat jaded. No matter how much I tried to conjure up some of the magic that must have been there back in the days of the Orient Express, I failed miserably. Even saying in the fantastic Esplanade Hotel wasn’t enough to fill the void. I tried to find some contemporary Croatian writers in translation to see what I was missing, but sadly, what I found was far from inspiring. We did walk about, we did explore, and apart from its wonderful cemetery, I can’t remember anything else of note. I’m glad I visited, but I’m in no hurry back.

My Canadian travellers decided that as they’d already booked and paid for their accommodation, they’d press on regardless of the fact that to my mind, a couple of days in Subotica and then on to Belgrade would have been far more interesting and rewarding.

Later that evening, I stopped to reflect on how easily I offer up my unsolicited opinion. Some might find this charming and even a little engaging. But not everyone really needs to know what I think. At least with blogging (and indeed, this column) people can choose whether or not to read what I have to write. But when we’re in conversation – short of telling me to shut up – there’s little you can do but listen or walk away.

I think I might need to revisit the carelessness with which I sometimes venture forth and perhaps take a second or two to give some thought to the consequences of my comments. So, Zagreb mightn’t be up there on my list of places to visit, but that doesn’t mean that you won’t enjoy it. And while Budapest has its drawbacks, if you caught me on a bad day when nothing was going right and life in Outer Mongolia was looking positively attractive in comparison to yet another day in this city, I’d hate to think that my opinion on a given Tuesday might put you off coming to see it for yourself.

This week, I’m left wondering what sort of menu my comments would make if, as Robert Louis Stevenson once said: ‘Everybody, sooner or later, sits down to a banquet of consequences.’

First published in the Budapest Times 26 September 2014

Life and death on the Tisza

‘It’s started. They’re flowering. Catch the next train to Subotica and someone will meet you at the station.’ I’d been waiting for this particular phone call for twelve months and when it came, I was ready. I was going to see something miraculous – the tiszavirág (or as it’s known in Serbia, tiski cvet).

Every year, for a day or two in June, a particular species of mayfly hatches on the Tisza River in what is known as tiszavirág (the Tisza blooming). The species, Polingenia longicauda, spends three years underwater, coming to the surface to frenetically hatch and mate for about two hours before dying. Its short life is dedicated totally to reproduction. Watching these flies mate in mid-air, the male’s long legs wrapped around the female, is quite something. There is no time for niceties. It’s a case of now or never with gangs of males chasing down a lone female. Some of the more eager males lie in wait on top of the female who has yet to shed her skin.

Clouds of them hover above the water, more cover the trunks of the riverbank trees, others gather on the drift wood – each trying to shed its cocoon and get down to the business of mating. So frantic are they in their race against time that I want to reach out and help the process. But I remember what I’d learned in Kruger, South Africa – do not interfere with nature. Instead, I stand, riveted, watching the brightly coloured insects gradually emerge from a diaphonous white coocon. One lands on my knee and there, oblivious to me and to the feel of cotton, he  goes about  his business. I am mesmerized and for the first time in my life, I have some small insight into what it might be like for a father to watch the birth of his child.

A flight of fancy

We take a skiff up the river and seem to fly with them – hundreds and thousands of them. Fishermen are out with their nets; this particular fly is liked by all species of fish, so it makes good bait. Given that the flies live just for two hours above water, it seems a little heartless to cut their short life even shorter and I feel some irrational degree of resentment at this display of what I perceive as human insensitivity. Surely the fishermen could wait a little. Photographers with their zoom lenses get up close and personal and I briefly wonder whether this counts as voyeurism. Waiting three years to mate and then having it all immortalised on film to be screened around the world as soon as the images are uploaded to the Internet? A little too close to the human condition for comfort. It’s hot. I know I am getting a little ridiculous, a little too fanciful, so I sit for a while on some driftwood and reflect on what exactly is bothering me.

Which life?

To spend three years underwater and then to surface for just two hours begs the question: which part consistutes life? Is what goes on underwater the mayfly’s version of living, and the ritual that goes on above water, its version of dying? The female mayfly lays her eggs on the surface of the water. After about 45 days, the eggs drift to the bottom of the river and hatch into larvae. The larvae then dig tunnels into the riverbed and stay put for three years after which they surface. The females shed once; the males twice: they first have a very brief ‘teenage’ stage and then in a matter of minutes, turn into adults. While the entire mating period lasts for about two days, each mayfly lives for about two hours. To see the process of death and regeneration in action simultaneously, is quite the experience. Like the Japanese Kamikaze pilots of World War II, I wonder if the the tiszavirág are mentally prepared to die?

Changing times

Locals recall times 50 years ago when you couldn’t see the other side of the Tisza for the 2-meter-high wall of insects swarming over the water. Sadly, this is no longer the case. I catch the action on Sunday evening; the previous evening, there had been a lot more to see. Like every other miracle in this world of ours, this one, too, seems to be waning. Yes, there are people watching but nothing like the crowds that I’d expected. I wonder briefly whether we have we lost our ability to marvel at what is natural? Has technology replaced nature as our chief source of wonder? Are we now immune to the simplest pleasures in life, spoiled as we are with great discoveries and scientific advancement?

The simple mayfly could teach us a lot about life and how fragile, fleeting, and fascinating it really is.

First published in the Budapest Times 28 June 2012

Back in the Balkans

Get the phone call – revise the route – hop on a train – and enjoy the best of Serbian hospitality. Just another Sunday in my world. I’d planned to go to Belgrade anyway, so this diversion wasn’t too much out of my way.

12.35 arrive in Subotica 12.50. Find my pick-up – friends of a friend whom I’ve never met before.13.10 stop at the goat lady to buy some cheese.

The sprightly 63-year-old retired locksmith has about 40 goats and lives in a house she built herself. Her account of a run-in with the local authorities over the rights to the grass at the airport was so animated that I didn’t need to understand Serbian to get her drift and be suitably amazed and entertained. I can only home that I’m in as fine a fettle when I get to her age. 14.00 arrive at  Palić to the No. 36 to meet my friend and the rest of the crew and to sample some grapefruit beer (a first for me). 15:15 depart for Paprika čarda, a restaurant on the shore of Palić lake.

At some stage, we passed the Olympic tower. I’ve been to Palić before but hadn’t realised the story behind it.  In the late nineteenth century,  before Pierre de Coubertin’s modern Olympic Games took full flight, local entrepreneur Lajos Vermes organised sports competitions in Palić, gathering the best athletes from Central Europe. Who’d have thought it, eh?

Lunch had been ordered ahead of time as our party had now grown to nine. The most fluent in non-native speaker of English by far was 12-year-old Makarije, who wowed me with his plans to enter the world of stem cell research as soon as he turned university age. When I asked where he had learned his English – he shrugged nonchalantly and said:  Television. Perhaps it’s time I invest in one!

Our menu was simple: fish and chips to start with, followed by fish soup. A little arse-about-face, I thought… but when in Serbia do as the Serbs do. And I was starving. Mention fish and chips and I am transported to an Irish chipper  and greasy chips with cod in batter or perhaps to the more refined Cajun-style offer now available in Budapest, so I wasn’t expecting the communal platter of breaded whitebait. As we picked our way through the mouthfuls of fish, conversation flitted from Hungarian and Serbian politics to the joys (or lack thereof) of school inspection systems, from what we could expect later on the Tisza to the neutrality of the Press. We covered sailing in Montenegro, the cyclical nature of life, nationalism, citizen engagement and the sublime joy of food, wine, and travel. The patience of those present with my lack of Serbian and their willingness to involve me in the conversation was lovely. My Balkan affair was renewed and I found myself wondering what it would be like to live by a lake.

The fish soup was sweet and tasty and served with noodles. Not a bone in sight.  Chunks of fresh, fleshy fish floated in good company with balls of fish eggs. I had not one, but two helpings, and had I had more time and notches in my belt, I could willingly have gone back for more. Another first for me as fish soup isn’t high on my list of culinary delights.

The view from the table was calm and serene. The weather was a little hot but the crisp local white wine mixed with gentle splashings of soda water made it easier to assimilate. It was a gorgeous afternoon. As we readied ourselves for the evening and our visit  to the Tisza River to watch the mayflies mating, I was reminded once again of how travel has broadened my horizons and how casual conversations and serendipitous introductions can herald the beginning of lasting friendships. Thanks, MM.

A splash of colour

Berlin never struck me as city that would be particularly colourful. When I think of colour and cities in the same sentence, I think of Barcelona and Gaudi; or Subotica and its art nouveau; or even Budapest with its great green and gold rooftops. But not Berlin. Yet even though it has its fair share of graffiti, it is awash with colourful murals that reflect the diverisity of its citizens and the creativity of its artists.

Blank walls have become canvases and the streets an open air gallery. Travelling by the S5 out to Charlottenburg is particularly colourful with lots of interesting murals of a more political bent. Others are more cute than chiq and others still a bleak commentary on city living. Some trace the history of the city while others exist seemingly to mask its grime. Most are interesting though.

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.

My Balkan affair

I think I’m in love with the idea of being in love. I’ve always been a one-man woman. I first realised this when I was 12 and had to make a choice between Pete Duel and Ben Murphy, the stars of that all-time-great TV show, Alias Smith and Jones. I just didn’t have it in me to fancy them both. It was tough. Now, some years later, I still can’t fancy two blokes at the same time. I’m trying, honestly, but it’s tough, and very limiting. I’m getting better with cities and countries, though. The more I travel, the more I realise that I simply can’t be in love with one place… I have to  broaden my scope a little and allow myself some leeway. It’s possible to love different countries for different reasons and, trollop that I am, I don’t feel the slightest remorse about embarking on my Balkan affair.

I met my neighbour in the lift on Easter Saturday, as I was heading to the train station. She asked me where I was going. I said Serbia. She asked where. I said Subotica. She said, rather dismissively, ah, Szabadka…that’s still Hungary! And for many years it was and for many people it still is.  Since the 2002 censuses in Romania and Serbia, Subotica has become the largest city outside Hungary in which Hungarians are the largest ethnic group, although they have only a relative majority 34.99%. But oh my, what a difference.

The Hungarian borderguards come on board at Kelebia. Some twenty minutes later, there’s the Serbian border check,  about 100 yards from the train station in Subotica. It takes a while…up to an hour to clear them both.  And there’s no point in hurrying or getting exasperated because it’s not just about crossing a border, it’s about completely shifting your mindset.  Maybe it was because it was the Easter weekend. Maybe it was because the sun was shining. Maybe it was because everyone uses ‘Ciao’ rather than ‘Szia’ but you know immediately you’re in another country and it’s nothing got to do with the language or the currency. You can feel it. It’s in the air. You’re in the Balkans.

Subotica is a city. Once the second-largest in Hungary, it’s now the fifth largest in Serbia. And it’s chock full of Art Nouveau buildings. It’s beautiful. Families stroll the streets. People sit at outdoor tables drinking what looks like orange juice and coffee. The beer is good, cold and cheap. The service is excellent. People are friendly. They’re happy. They’re chilled out. They’re helpful. And they know how to laugh. Deep, belly laughs that spill over and are infectious. They’re fashionable, too. While Puma and Adidas seem to sell as well as they do in Dublin, in Subotica they wear their tracksuits with style. Colourful, coordinated, and, dare I say it, almost cool!  Those not in their leisure gear look as if they’ve stepped off the catwalk in Milan. Male or female, it doesn’t matter. There’s a certain panache that no amount of money can buy and this city has it!It took us a while to figure out how to order a tejes kavé though. It translates into a Nes coffee, often listed on the menu as Nescafé. I wonder if any trademark guys ever come here on holiday?

Although the hotel we stayed in, Hotel Gloria, deserves every one of its four stars, you have to wonder who stays there. I couldn’t find a single postcard on sale and the currency exchange booths seem to cater more for locals crossing over and back than for tourists. Perhaps people simply don’t get off the train…they leave Budapest and go straight through to Belgrade. Or perhaps, the Suboticans respect those brave enough to disembark and that’s why we were treated so well. How about this for a conspiracy theory:  they don’t want tourists! So the view of the outskirts is deliberately bleak. It’s been dressed up to look like a rubbish tip. The kids have a ball spreading the litter about, the houses are deliberately rundown and the gardens purposefully overgrown. If you hadn’t planned on stopping, nothing you see would entice you get off the train.  And if you fell for this trick of theirs, then you’d miss something glorious.

Many of the buildings are being or have been restored. More are in desperate need of some care and attention. The trees lining the streets create weird and wonderful shadows. It’s other-worldly. Even the graffiti is different – it’s almost reflective. We had great plans, IM and me, to find the house where Kosztolányi Deszo was born abut no-one seemed to know where it was. There is very little signage to show what anything is and what’s there seems very personal, as if it’s to remind the locals of what has happened rather than to educate the foreigners. To my shame, I know so very little about what happened here not so long ago; it came as such a shock to see such recent dates on war memorials.  But where other countries seem to want to forget, Subotica is very much about remembering. There’s  a huge fundraising effort ongoing to restore the synagogue and it’s already showing some of that old spectacular greatness. The plaque in the garden reads: In memory of 4000 Jewish citizen with whom we lived and built Subotica. They perished in the fascist death camps during the World War II. We visited many churches. You know of course that every time you visit a church for the first time, you get three wishes? And interestingly, it was outside the Orthodox church that the Roma children had gathered, hands outstretched, palms upwards. With muttered ‘I’m not an ATM’ or ‘Do I look like a bank’ the people gave their coins. It made me sad to think that from such a young age, these kids are being taught to expect handouts. Their mothers waited outside the church while the men hovered at the corner, keeping a manly eye on things. I wondered briefly why I hadn’t see them in such numbers outside the Catholic churches… and if that’s indicative of anything or nothing at all.

I don’t know many Serbs but the ones I do know are  imbued with a passion for life and for living. They have a presence about them. They’ve lived through things I will never fully comprehend and despite this, and perhaps because of it, they have an appreciation for living in the now. They understand the transiency of time. No matter their size, their strength, both physcial and mental, is tangible.  One day soon I will make it to Belgrade and then further afield, perhaps to Croatia, Kosovo,  Bosnia or Montenegro. They say you know you’re really in the Balkans when all you can find is Turkish coffee. I am glad I didn’t just plunge in…I quite enjoyed my Nescafé.