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

I fell for Tucson Arizona. I didn’t have nearly enough time there but it was long enough to know that of all the cities I’ve visited this trip, this is one I want to get to know better.

Brief history of Tucson Arizona

About 115 miles (185 km) southeast of Phoenix, the city of Tucson Arizona sits beside the Santa Cruz River on a hilly plain in the Sonoran Desert, surrounded by mountains. Back in 1692, when the Jesuit missionary Eusebio Kino first visited the Tohono O’odham, the place was called Chuk Shon – village of the spring at the foot of the black mountain.  A few years later, he’d establish several missions in the locality, including the now famous and rather spectacular Mission San Xavier del Bac. Part of the Gadsden purchase of 1854, Tucson became part of the USA. It’s still a bilingual community with both English and Spanish freely spoken. The city had its fair share of long-term visitors and in its day has flown four flags: Spanish, Mexican, Confederate, and US. With the silver reserves in Tombstone and the copper mines in Bisbee, the city soon blossomed.

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Saguora cactus near Inside of a falled Saguora cactus near Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, Coolidge, AZ

The desert never fails to conjure up images of Western movies. I expect to see Indians in full battle regalia on horseback on each ridge, and spot the dust plume kicked up by cowboys, with lariats on their saddles and spurs on their boots. There’s an other worldliness to it all that defies explanation. The Casa Grande Ruins National Monument in Coolidge AZ has been a part of such a landscape for the last 650 years. Read more

Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright, Electric Desert, Electric desert Desert Botanical Gardens

I like flowers. I like plants. I like shrubs. But spending a few hours in a botanical garden isn’t quite my sliver of bark. It’s not something I’d choose to do unless it had something quirky about it. Taking the boat to Garnish Island in Bantry Bay off the coast of Cork was an experience. Visiting the Japanese Gardens in Kildare, a celebration of miniature, is something I’d do again. Visiting Victor’s Way in Roundwood Co. Wicklow is high on my list of things to do next time I’m home. But your run-of-the-mill botanical gardens? Give me a good book and I’ll wait for you. But I like cactuses (cacti) and I like light and sound shows, so when I got to put the two together, it was magical. Electric desert is a must-see. Read more

I have a vague memory of visiting Phoenix AZ many moons ago. That it’s a vague memory says a lot about my impression of the place. I think we were supporting some Irish dancers who had travelled to the city for a feis. I know we met up with the brother of a girl I’d gone to school with at home and he’d taken us to a cowboy place where we sat on saddle-shaped stools and slithered down a pole to get into the restaurant. And we ate rattlesnake. That’s it. That’s all I remember about Phoenix AZ.

This time, we were visiting good friends in Scottsdale and they had our number.

Musical Instruments Museum Phoenix AZ

First up was the MIM – the Musical Instruments Museum. Read more