We dream of islands in the sun. Exotic places where we can get away from it all. We spend hundreds if not thousands of whatevers getting there and then come home full of the experience. Too often, we forget that just down the road there might be somewhere just as interesting, somewhere that offers an opportunity to explore, to get away from it all, but because it’s so near, we don’t consider it travel. Travel seems to be measured by a physical distance rather than a metaphorical one, even if just ten minutes from home a whole new world awaits. Kányavári sziget is just an example.

I have a fondness for islands. For water. For bridges. And for quiet. And were I to ask any of you for your recommendation, that one place that has all that and more, I’d be reading for a week. There are myriad places around the world that would fit the bill but I’m fortunate to have all that and more within walking distance. Practically at the end of the garden.

Hungary is known for the Balaton, the Hungarian sea, the massive lake that is choc-a-bloc in the summer with Hungarians on holiday and tourists on vacation. And in the winter, it’s quiet. And it has water. But I’m not talking about the Balaton. I’m talking about the Kis-Balaton (the little Balaton), even farther to the south-west. It has its own island, Kányavári sziget and its own bridge.

Kányvári sziget

Wooden bridge on Kányvári sziget

Part of me is reluctant to do anything that might put this place on the tourist map but that’s me being selfish. It’s a gorgeous spot that I’ve written about many times. We went down there this evening, for a walk, to catch the sunset. We passed two couples fishing and a couple of lads trying their luck. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone catch anything, but it’s certainly not for want of trying. Perhaps though it’s the fishing that’s important, not the catching. We passed another couple out walking their dog and then two other friends scuffing through the leaves. It was quiet and peaceful, the only noise coming from the ducks and the geese.

Kányavári sziget sunset kis-balaton

viewing tower on Kányavári sziget

We climbed the 44 steps to the top of the tower and watched the sun go down. Beautiful. Peaceful. Rejuvenating. And it’s only down the road. Perhaps 2018 might be the year to go local, to explore more of Zala megye and the surrounding counties.

Sunset on kis-balaton Kányavári sziget

There are myriad blogs out there on what to do in Piran. There are lists upon lists of where to eat and where to stay. And these usually aren’t my things. But for Piran, I’m making an exception.

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The vague recollection of walking the harbour at Piran didn’t start niggling until Day 2 in this fabulous Slovenian town. Walking from the outer beach back to town, I began to feel as if I’d been there before. I tweeted a few photos and immediately had a response from a Serbian friend reminding me of the fish dinner we’d had there some 10 years ago. I checked my blog and yes… it was true. Read more

When we travel on a fixed route from A to B, we often miss so much in between. We’re so focused on getting there on time to check in, eat dinner, or do whatever we plan to do that we don’t stop along the way. Of course, if we’re planners, we do the research and plan extra stops into our itinerary. And if we’re wingers, we might just build in the time anyway and take it as it comes. We follow the signs.

We were heading to the Kreinbacher Estate in Somlóhegy for dinner and a wine-tasting. Check-in was a 3 pm. The journey would take less than an hour. So we left at 10 that morning, just to make sure we’d have time to stop if anything caught our fancy along the way. A sign pointing to an old cemetery or a ruined castle or a roadside market – anything.

Driving out of Zalaszántó, a village that was once home to the fab Florridora’s Pantry, an English tearoom in the middle of the Hungarian countryside, we remarked on how we’d never before driven through it. We’d come for tea more than once, but had never ventured beyond the corner. I’d a vague notion that there was some big Buddha somewhere in the ‘hood but I’d no idea where or what to expect. And then we saw the sign – Stupa.

I hung a left and drove until the paved road ended. Then we hit the dirt roads with their potholes and weed-ridden centre lines. Poor old Ime took a battering. At one turn, some people had parked and were walking uphill. The sign said another kilometre. I kept driving. Finally, we could go no further. About ten cars were parked and a handful of people were milling around the stand selling all things Tibetan. Wind chimes, incense sticks, prayer flags, posters of sayings from the Dalai Lama. The bells sent out their messages in the breeze and the waft of incense made an already humid day slightly headier. We walked further, passing a meditation centre on our left and more stalls on the right. I was excited about seeing Buddha. But I’d gotten it wrong.

We had seen our fair share of stupas in Thailand but somehow my brain had difficulty transporting one to Hungary. I was missing the connection. But there it was, in all its glory – the largest stupa in Europe, built in the village of Zalaszántó by a chap from South Korea. Could it get any stranger?

Zalaszántói Sztupa stupa in Zalaszántó Hungary

Zalaszántói Sztupa stands 30 metres high and 24 metres wide. From its perch, some 316 metres high on a hill above Lake Balaton, it has a beautiful view. It’s home to some tiny pieces of Buddha’s remains that made their way from Tibet via India and Switzerland only to end up encased in Zalaszántói Sztupa, reportedly making it the only place in Europe with a Buddhist relic and a holy place of pilgrimage. The idea belongs to Bop Jon (Jin Sui Lí), a Buddhist monk from South Korea who was part of the Buddhist Peace Foundation in Hungary. Back in 1990, he was on the lookout for a country in the midst of a regime change where he planned to build a stupa to represent peace, happiness, and enlightenment. But he also needed somewhere where the locals would be amenable to accepting of the Buddhist tradition. somewhere construction would be facilitated rather than hampered. Mayor Zoltán Huszti Ferecz issued the invitation and the rest, as they say, is history. 

history of Zalaszántói Sztupa stupa in Zalaszántó Hungary

Using donations from South Korea, Hungary, and Austria (some 40 million HUF, equivalent to about 630 million today), the stupa was erected between March and September of 1992.  And on 17 June 1993, the 14th Dalai Lama, Gyo Tendzin came to Hungary to dedicate it. By 2007, the weather had taken its toll; the stupa had to be refurbished and rededicated. Today, it’s a gleaming beacon of peace and serenity in the middle of a forested hill – the aerial view must be spectacular.

While I’m well-versed in Roman Catholic rituals and have a reasonable grasp of Protestant ones, I’m a loss as to what to do with Buddhism. We sat at the base, waiting for someone to stride confidently forth and begin. We weren’t looking for tourists, like ourselves… we wanted someone who really knew what they were doing. We didn’t have to wait long to find someone we could mimic.

Prayer wheels Zalaszántói Sztupa stupa in Zalaszántó Hungary

We walked clockwise around the lower Pradakshina path and then the middle and then the top, where we paused and paid homage to the golden statue inside the glass casing. The top pradakshina was lined with 50 prayer wheels that we brushed as we passed. We did this three times, sending our prayers out into the world. The first time I counted – I had to. The second time, I tried to think of a Buddhist or Hare Krishna chant but failed miserably. The third time I prayed. It was lovely.

On the way out, we passed by the meditation centre again, not realising it was a temple, too. Next time. And there’ll be a next time. Of course, we stopped to buy some wind chimes and prayer bells – I love the sounds they make. There’s a lot to be said for the simplicity of Buddhism and more to be said about following the signs.

Zalaszántói Sztupa stupa in Zalaszántó Hungary

 

 

Nagykanizsa (know to locals as simply Kanizsa) is a town in southwestern Hungary. It gets its name from the Slavic Kynsa, which translates as ‘belonging to a prince’. And once you get by the blocks of panel apartments and the myriad chain stores and supermarkets and make your way to the centre to Erzsébet tér (Elizabeth Square), it’s not difficult to let your imagination take over. Read more

Hungarian wine is as good as it gets. The number of small organic producers is growing. The big guys continue to make the technical stuff and tourists in their droves descend on the major wine regions of Eger, Villány, and Tokaj. But there are plenty of other places, off the well-worn tourist track, smaller wine regions like Somló – which is actually the smallest of the 22 regions in the country – where producers like Kreinbacher work their magic.

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I read this morning that on this day, back in 1386 , St John of Capistrano, leader of the 1456 Battle of Belgrade, was born. I was immediately transported to Belgrade, one of my favourite European cities. Read more

Zagreb hasn’t featured on my list of cities to return to. I remember being singularly unimpressed with it, the last time I was there …. for a Leonard Cohen gig back in 2010. Is it that long ago?  Granted, few cities are at their best on a Sunday evening if you’re not staying in the happening part of town. Read more

Salvation Mountain

Speaking from a Christian perspective, we live in a time a  time when overt expression of religious faith makes many feel uncomfortable. Bible verses and vocal expressions of the word of God aren’t exactly crowd gatherers. Not diverse crowds anyway. Salvation Mountain stands strong in defiance, attracting people from all over the world, of all religions, and of no religion. It’s quite the spectacle.

Leonard Knight came to Slab City in 1984 planning on staying a week. He wanted to build a little adobe monument to God and then be on his way. Some 27 years later, he left, but more from circumstance than choice.  In December 2011, dementia got the better of him. He’d spend his last three years in a care home, far from his beloved Salvation Mountain.

Back in 1967, Leonard had a meeting of faith. Never one to darken the door of a church, he was sitting in his truck one day when he found himself thinking: “I am a sinner, Jesus come into my heart.” He said the words over and over again and underwent some sort of transformation that would change his life from that minute forward. Fast forward a few years to when his vision of spreading the love of Jesus took shape – the shape of a hot air balloon on which he’d paint the word of God.

Some ten years later, after sewing together a massive balloon, which turned out to be too big to fill with air, and then developing a system to fill it by which time the material had rotted, Leonard decided to redirect his energy. He’d build a concrete balloon in the desert instead. But that, too, was destined to fail. Undaunted and determined, he decided he’d build a mountain. He failed the first time at that, as well, but then gradually, inch by inch, he got there.

Salvation Mountain Slab City CA

We were unfortunate in that the days we visited, the mountain was closed to climbers because of the recent rains and wet paint. We were lucky that the museum (and I use the term loosely) was open on the second day so we could have a look around. We were doubly lucky that the current custodian, Ron, took time out of his repair work to chat to us. In a previous life, he worked as a union floorer and was in demand. He could pretty much rock up anywhere and get a well-paid job. But, as he said, he was taking money from those who lived locally and had families to support. And that didn’t sit well with him. When he did decide to settle, it was in Las Vegas. While he was waiting for the paperwork to complete, he drove out to Slab City for a couple of week’s vacation. He never left.

He worked with Leonard while he was alive and since his passing he’s been the man in charge of keeping the place together. He lives on site and hasn’t left the place in three years. He told us that for every handful of adobe he scoops out, he has to put two back, always keeping the shape of the original structure.

When Sean Penn’s movie Into the Wild came to Salvation Mountain, the millimeters of celluloid it got changed it forever. It became a place to  visit.  This clip had me a little teary-eyed – Lenonard was quite the character. Ron said the handprint thing was something Leonard thought was vain:-)

Salvation Mountain Slab City CA

Salvation Mountain Slab City CA

Salvation Mountain Slab City CA

Salvation Mountain Slab City CA

The art cars parked in the lot are decorated to within an inch of their metal. And even in the short time we’d been there the day before, we’d seen tourists completely ignore the signs not to climb onto them for photos or selfies. It ticks Ron off. If he sees it and he’s not up a ladder, he has words:  ‘Now, me and my dirt friends don’t go sittin’ on your car… ‘

I asked Zach, one of the young lads we met while staying at the Ponderosa in Slab City if everyone was particularly religious, given that Salvation Mountain was such a feature.

Some are, some aren’t’, he said. ‘Mainly people have respect for Leonard. Everyone loved Leonard.

And therein lies the spirituality of the place, embodied not in a man-made adobe mountain or in the bible verses painted liberally about, but in the love that Leonard left behind. He wasn’t a Bono or a Bill Gates. He didn’t invent the cure for cancer or win the Super Bowl. He didn’t make millions or win awards. He was a man who believed he had a message to pass on. He was a man who believed in the love of Jesus and the power of faith. He was a man who had everything he needed and though some might say he had sod all, he had it all.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been somewhere that’s had such an impact on me. And while East Jesus and Slab City and even Salvation Mountain are all worth visiting, it’s the people who made it. Simple, uncomplicated lives being well lived with heart and decency. As Ron said:

You have to take care of yourself before you can take care of your neighbor. And around here, taking care of your neighbour is what it’s about.

Now, ain’t that a lesson worth travelling for?

Salvation Mountain Slab City CA

Salvation Mountain Slab City CA

Salvation Mountain Slab City CA

 

More reading about Salvation Mountain

Leonard Knight – the man who built Salvation Mountain – by Lynn Bremner

Before we hit the dirt roads heading out of Niland towards Slab City, I lost the picture I had in my head of the East Jesus Art Gallery we were heading to see. I’d imagined East Jesus as a quaint little town with perhaps a boutique hotel and lots of wooden-floored gallery spaces where local artists exhibited and sold their work. I’d imagined the main gallery as a high-ceilinged sunlit room, packed to capacity with original work, a piece of which might be coming home with me. I didn’t want to dawdle. I thought the place might close early on Sundays. I’d even hoped to catch evening mass. Read more

Slab City

The snowbirds who gravitate to Slab City in the Sonoran Desert in California are not your usual run-of-the-mill types that have condos in the Coachella Valley. But snowbirds, those looking to escape their harsh winter climates by moving to a desert locale for the winter, come in many variations. Those who turn up in Slab City are often at the lower end of the income scale: squatters, tweakers, and down-on-their-luck types. With winter numbers swelling to close to 4000 in recent years (attributable no doubt to hard times and recession), some of the 200 full-time residents who call Slab City home year round are very much into living an off-the-grid self-sustainable life. And fair play to them. Read more