Posts

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

A garden of freshly cut tears

IMG_2967Budapest, Hungary. Monday, 31st August, 2009.

“We don’t know when we will pass this way again, so we’re going to give you everything we got.” In his mid-seventies, face deeply etched by a life that has been lived, Leonard Cohen gave us his all, and more besides. He was on stage for three hours, played six encores, and held a mainly non-English-speaking audience in the palm of his hand for every minute.  In Dublin, additional dates had to be added; I think he sold out three concerts, if not four. In Budapest, another thousand people could have easily fit in the arena where he played one night only.

I saw him live in Amsterdam last year. An outdoor venue. Me, JD and a few thousand aging hippies, high as kites, standing in a field, in the rain. That night was special for many reasons and is forever etched in my bones. I knew I was in the presence of greatness, of humility, and of something else that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.  Tonight…tonight, I finally got it.

What Leonard Cohen has is respect. He puts it out, he gets it back. He wasn’t sure when he would pass this way again, so he gave us everything he had. And more. He thanked us, as he did in Amsterdam, for keeping his songs alive all these years. There was none of this ‘Budapest, I love you’ crap that modern-day megastars seems to enjoy bellowing at an audience who have paid through the nose to hear their pitiful, between-song rhetoric. There was none of the egotistical prancing and strutting around the stage (Grafton Street, God, and what’s-his-name come to mind). There was none of the flashiness or pomp that is too often used as an excuse for talent. Am I jaded? Perhaps a little.

The man kept it simple. He bowed to his band. He repeatedly acknowledged their talent and how important they are to him. He even thanked his bus drivers and the girl who looked after their hats. The man knows people; he appreciates what he has; and he understands the importance of humility and respect. So his voice isn’t what it used to be but the poetry that is his music is all the richer. I heard words tonight that I’ve never really heard before although I have ironed my way through his songs a hundred times. But the experiences of  mindless singing along and really listening to what’s being said are light years apart. Tonight, I had the time to listen.

Back in the day, we’d light our matches or wave our cigarette lighters in the air at concerts: the ultimate accolade. Tonight, the luminous screens of mobile phones lit the arena, as people recorded songs to listen to later. I was reminded of something Tiziano Skarpa wrote about in his book Venice is a Fish. He reckons that as tourists, we’re too busy taking photographs to really see what it is we’re looking at; too busy capturing the memory to really experience it at the time. And I wonder, of those who could understand the words, how many really heard them.

Tonight Leonard Cohen spoke to me and said: ‘My darling…I hope you’re satisfied.’

Yes, Leonard, I am.