IMG_2772Well, I finally made it to the Hungarian Sea. To Balaton (or to ‘the Balaton’) as is said here. The typical Friday afternoon crawl of cars heading down to to Balaton is a sight to behold in itself. Anyone who is prepared to spend hours in traffic just to reach the lake has to really appreciate it for what it is. Apart from being the largest lake in Central Europe, with a surface covering 592 km², it’s a respite from the heat-laden capital. And it’s big:  77 km from north to south with widths varying from 4 to 14 km. It can get to 12.2 m deep but averages about 3.2 m. Water temperatures in the summer get to about 25 cm so it’s perfect for swimming. Back in the old days, it was where East met West – literally. Families from East Germany could travel to Hungary freely, and those from West Germany could get visas to visit; so it was at the Balaton that they met over the summer.

JFW brought the Elizabeth Jane over from England and she’s now happily moored at Tihany marina. The present owners bought the marina about seven years ago. It’s run for profit, to finance its not-for-profit sailing school. A lovely spot with a tiny private beach. We took the ferry across to Tihany after driving about 90 minutes from Budapest. After I had my morning sun and ‘sea’, we headed in to Balatonfüred for lunch. The town is famous for its water. People used to mix water from Whey spring, in front of the Heart Clinic, with sheep’s cottage cheese as a cure for lung disease.  Today, the medicinal waters are used to heal heart and circulatory diseases and for treating general exhaustion.   This last bit is a little ironic, considering that the lakeside was packed with tourists, local and foreign, and was far from relaxing. I so resent my water space being populated. Honestly, when I win the lottery, I’d like to buy an island so that I could read by the water in silence. Am I too young to be so crotchety? IMG_2806

 The ‘nightingale of the nation’ Blaha Lujza had her summer residence here, about 300 m from the lake. Must have been nice! She got this nickname after asking the emperor  Francis Joseph to pardon 13 Hungarian hussars who were sentenced to death.

KG and MI headed off to Tihany later that afternoon, but too much sun and the prospect of a couple of hours in the water took me back to the marina. I really, really, really want to live beside the sea. Or at least beside some water.  I could happily fall asleep every evening to the sound of water breaking on rocks or seagulls singing for their supper.

Tihany is another lovely town best seen in late evening when the daytrippers have gone home. Famous for its monastery and lavender fields, it straddles that fine line IMG_2834between kitsch and quaint. The Benedictine Monastery was founded in 1055 and the foundation charter is the earliest written record extant of the Hungarian language. Like a number of other Hungarian towns and villages, Tihany also has its ‘Calvary’ – huge, outdoor stations of the cross leading up a hill to the three crosses on Calvary. Very moving.

We had dinner there before heading back to the city and I tried the famous fish soup. I’m glad I did. Now that I’ve done it once, there’s no need for me to ever do that again!

I am sooooooooooooooooooooo mad. You can’t hear this, but I’m pounding the keyboard out of pure, unadulterated anger. I am sick, sick, sick at what my fellow human being is capable of. Where has the dignity gone, the respect?

Calm down,  Maro…

The day started out fine. K came and painted my outside plastered walls in a god-awful (And yes, JFW, the g is intentionally lowercase) yellow that probably was the original colour of the walls 50 years ago. I can live with it. I went then the Csillahegy to pick up my business cards. Wow. Nearly two years later, I’m finally joining the Hungarian namecard game. The website and the email address have yet to function, but the phone number works! One step at a time. The lads at Steg are good.

Anyway, I went from there to drop off a rather nice invoice – actually, as it’s company money and not mine, I don’t know why I’m getting excited, but it will pay the gas and electric for another couple of months! And then it was time for the ‘pre-speech’ glass of Nyakas. Yes, I was giving my first ‘public’ performance tonight (or last night) : The question of life, the universe and everything: a humorous reflection of living life without a plan. It was TEA time. It went well. I was on a high and had a gob on me so when that action stopped, I headed to Szimpla Kert with GM, the Slovenian Philosopher, and Ms M. All was well. We caught the night bus in good spirits and while jaywalking across Racoczi utca, the cops actually stopped to let us cross. If ever I get to the stage where beatification is being given some serious consideration, that particular miracle can count as one of my three!

So we get to Szimpla… a favourite haunt of mine. And there, in quiet and contemplative mood, I watch the others dance while I take in what’s going on around me.

Katy, from the UK, is having her 30th Birthday party. All her mates are wearing banners with ‘Hungary 2009, Katy’s 30th Birthday’ emblazoned so it wasn’t hard to figure it out. I could see four bannered women, all well trolleyed. The small one, with the glasses, could hardly stand up straight. She was ratarsed. The oldest one was being chatted up by this guy (definitely a native English-speaker). Anyway, Katy was busy chatting up Male No. 1 who did a runner when she tried to pin her tiara on him. and this pissed her off. So she takes it out on Ms Ratarsed and decides that Ms Older has to take Ms Ratased back to the hotel. Each of them is drunk – really drunk – standing, but not quite with it. Mr Chat Up continues trying to ingratiate himself. He looks fine. A little gone, but still walking straight and standing tall with no obvious signs of any delayed reactions. He’s into Ms Older and ain’t happy that she seems to have drawn the short straw and has to take Ms Ratarsed home. He’s showing classic globalisation symptoms: Roman hands and Russian fingers. He is copping a feel at every opportunity and the two women are too drunk to care. Then, he goes and gets his two mates. And the three of them, like vultures, hover and wait. They’re sussing it out. God, these women wouldn’t know their own names in the morning, let alone what had happened. It was revolting. And yes, I sat and watched.

Could I have gone over and interrupted the party? Yes. Would I have been told to fu*k off? Almost certainly. So I stayed put and watched, promising myself that if it got out of hand, I’d interrupt. Thankfully, Ms Ratarsed saved the day by almost collapsing and the gals left. The lads stayed put. But how sick is that? Women drink. Women get drunk. Stupid women drink and get drunk without making sure that one of their mates stays sober. But that doesn’t give men licence to cop a feel, make a play, or plain take advantage. And that’s what it is. Taking advantage. So, it’s not rape unless I say NO and NO and NO …bollocks!

So on my tod, watching the dancers, this chap approaches. He’s having a house party in the next street and would I like to come with him  and ‘get more drunk’.

Nope, I’m fine, but thanks for asking.
Where are you from?
Ireland.
I love the Irish. (sits down). I tried to get this Swedish girl to come to the party. Swedish girls like sex. But she wouldn’t come. What do you do here in Hungary?
I’m a lecktor (editor). What do you do?
I’m a gangster…..

’nuff said.

IMG_2726Every Wednesday morning for the last eight weeks or so, I have been wandering through the 8th district, at the Kálvin tér end… on Múzeum utca. After class, I’ve walked past Épitész pince and have never ventured in. Last week, I decided to treat myself to lunch as my curiosity won out. Budapest is full of surprises. Behind high walls lie beautiful courtyards (udvar). Romanesque colonnades are nearly two a penny and the city is swarming with statues. Vibrant colours on painted walls are offset by so many shades of green that even Johnny Cash would have paused for thought.

The daily menu (napi menü) is a very reasonable 970 HUF for three courses (about €3.50, $5, £3) but clever as they are, if you opt for this, you have to eat inside in the pince (cellar). It was a glorious day and I was rather taken with the statues, the greenery, and the ivy-clad walls, so I treated myself to roast goose leg with baked cabbage and apple, and onion potato and sat outside. Plate piled high, I was transported back to my days in Valdez, Alaska when food portions for one would feed three. It was excellent. Everything I wanted and more.  IMG_2729

Épitész is Hungarian for building and this building houses the School of Architecture. I didn’t know this at the time, which makes my train of thought that day even more curious. Mind you, perhaps the group of four solid-looking chaps pouring over blueprints of some kind should have rung a bell. But hey, I was still in aperture land!

Eating on your own, without a book to keep you company, can leave you wondering where to fix your gaze. Even the most exquisite plate can only hold your attention for so long. Between bites of fresh orange and apple, I couldn’t help noticing what a wonderful architect nature is. Admittedly, the building itself IMG_2724is lovely and it comes with a picturesque courtyard, regal statues, an amazing wrought iron staircase, and well-trodden stone steps. Somehow, though, I felt it had grown into itself. Ivy covers the walls and frames the windows; the occasional red flower makes the greens seem even darker than they are. The marble statues are almost human, reflecting as they do years of inclement weather. Long, trailing creepers hang from glass ceilings, weighed down by time. The pebbled courtyard still echoes the horse-drawn carriages drawing up to take the ladies of the house to the ball.

I could live here. And maybe in a previous life I did. But then, if that were true, I’d have know what  Épitész meant…mmmm

If you find yourself in Budapest, take the 47/49 tramIMG_2721 to Kálvin tér or get the No. 3 metro (blue line). FromKálvin tér head down Múzeum utca to  Ötpacsirta utca. Turn right and look for the yellow building on your left. Open every day except Sunday.

IMG_2555And, no, I’ve not gone over the other side. But even I had to respect the greatness that is Real Madrid and pay homage when living practically next door, albeit for 48 hours, to what some consider to be sacred ground. And it was quite the experience. Somehow, I’d never equated a soccer stadium with clubbing, or ever imagined a soccer crowd clad in Prada, Ralph Lauren and D&G… and that’s not even going near the girls. Madrid truly is home to some beautiful people; never once did I see an inch of scruff on a Spanish-speaking  bod. Bright colours, up-to-the-minute fashion, perfectly coiffed and manicured, these lads are gorgeous. And lovely. Chatty, intelligent, and lots of fun. And what profiles!!! Even their graffiti is a cut above the ordinary. Heads are round to allow thoughts to flow in all directions.

The first thing that struck me about Madrid is the greenery. I had to keep reminding myself I was in  city. Magnolia trees everywhere. Long, wide avenues lined with green; huge parks with water fountains, lakes and more trees. It is beautifully sculpted. It, too, has its old parts, its grand squares, and its narrow, cobblestoned streets. It also has its ultramodern skyline with every brand name you can think of dotting the horizon. It’s a strange mix, this old and new and had it not been 38 degrees in the shade, I might have given it a little more thought. It’s definitely out of my time zone – the afternoon siesta I can deal with; going out to eat at 10 or 11 at night would take a complete reprogramming of my body clock. Staying out until 6am is what I used to do…perhaps that’s it. In Madrid, I felt old.  IMG_2673

After seven years in Alaska, I find it difficult to cope with heat if I’m not near water (and yes, I too ask myself what I’m doing in Budapest… ) Sitting in the shadow of the palace having coffee, I saw three older women, dolled up to the nines, gilt edged and gorgeous enjoying an animated chat over an aperitif or three. One in particular struck me and I found myself hoping that I would be just like her when I got to her age. Eccentrically gorgeous, gossiping with my girlfriends and setting the world to rights over a glass of wine. The sheer energy of the Madridites is exhausting.

The lovely KB, my guide, and her gorgeous fellah R_G, crammed as much as possible into two days. I saw lots and more. I discovered Clara – lager with lemon; ate tapas until they came out my ears; and even had my cards read. Another story entirely.

IMG_1998It’s hard to say what it is that keeps taking me back to Bratislava… apart from second-time visitors to Budapest wanting to broaden their horizons. For some very strange reason, I’m in love with the city. I don’t think I could live there though… yet there’s something strangely cathartic about getting off the train after 2.5 hours of journeying through the Hungarian and Slovakian countryside and stepping into the world of John le Carré. It’s like being back in the Cold War…or at least what I imagine being in the Cold War would have been like.  It’s not the best side of the city by any means. Generally hustling with all sorts – backpackers, touristy tourists, local commuters, shoppers, and the usual hang-abouters that come with every train station – it’s far from picturesque. Concrete just doesn’t cut it when it comes to atmosphere. Still, though, there is something in the air. Slovakia joined the eurozone in January this year and I missed that bit of excitement this time around. There’s something rather magical about getting used to new money; the temporary suspension of reality when you just spend and hope for the best, having tried in vain to come up with an easy denominator to make the calculations easy.

The No. 13 tram takes you down into the old town – the historic centre – and close enough to my hotel of choice, the Kyjev. The lift takes minutes to get to the top floor and when you step inside, you step back in time about thirty years. My imagination runs riot and again, I can see spies around every corner. I love it. Nothing has been touched in years. This is in sharp contrast to the old town, where modern sculptures have been plonked in random places.

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I’ve been to Bratislava four times now, and each time have made a valiant effort to light a candle in the Cathedral. Only it’s never been open to the public. I’ve been on varying days – Monday, Thursday, Friday, Sunday and each time it’s been closed. Right next door to this rather splendid tribute to Catholicsm, is a far more intriguing building that is overshadowed by its neighbour. Personally, I think it has more character; better reflects the mood of the people; and for me, symbolises the arty side of old age. If it were a poem, it would be Jenny Joseph’s When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple. You have to hand it to the Bratislavans – they take any and every opportunity available to art it. The day I was there, we came across a bunch of lads who had just taken part in choral competition. While waiting outside on the street to be summoned for their photo call, they started singing. Beautiful a cappella. The jury is out on who enjoyed it more: the singers or those fortunate enough to happen past at that moment. That is Bratislava. You never quite know what’s around the next corner. It’s not somewhere to spend a week – a day and a night is plenty – yet no two days or two nights are quite the same.

IMG_2393There is something strangely evocative about this picture. In Slovenia, in the Karst region, they plant rose bushes at both ends of a row of vines to attract the bugs and keep them away from the grapes. Rows and rows of crucifix-like vines, each with a blazing bush of red roses topping and tailing it. We give roses to symbolise so many things: red for love, passion, respect and courage; yellow for friendship, freedom, and to welcome home; pink for sympathy, admiration, gratitude or appreciation; lavender for lust and love at first sight; and white for sincerity, innocence, secrecy and pure love. And and yet, in this corner of the world, roses are sacrificed for the greater glory…that glory being wine!

I’ve been nurturing a fondness for Hungarian wine and, although I am far from being expert in these matters, I became quite quickly attached to Slovenian white. So much so that I lugged a three-litre flask of it home on five trains and two buses! There’s dedication for you. Once a year, in the Karst region, Slovenians celebrate ‘eight’. Years ago, in old Empress Marie-Theresa’s day, she allowed farmers to sell their produce, tax free, for eight days each year. Now, villages take it in turns to rotate the ‘osmica’ with one farm in each village hosting eight days and nights of food, wine and music. Everyone contributes. It’s a great night out – home cured meats (cured in the wind rather than smoked), cheeses, and fine wines and liquors all oiled by some local musicians. How strange it was to hear Country Roads in Slovenian… but even though the words were different, the music was still the same! A lot like going to mass in Budapest!

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The youth hostel in Pliskovica is perfectly sited for travelling across the border to nearby Trieste. The village itself is lovely – one street that winds its way up hill and down vale. Stunning views over the Karst region and that sense of homeliness that you miss when living in the city. On Saturday night, we headed to Piran and to get there, we cut through Italy and back into Slovenia again.  The borders have gone now; just empty sentryboxes and lone barricades. Piran is what some call the Dubrovnik of the North Adriatic – but that description only helps if you’ve been to Dubrovnik. It’s a coastal town with stunning views across the water to Croatia. And there’s a boat connection to Venice… a link that might explain the Venetian Gothic architecture.  Fresh fish is the thing to eat and the wine… while not of the same calibre as that of the farm near Pliskovica, was lovely, too. I’d like to go back.

I was asking BB, one of the Slovenian lads on the trip, if he’d lived abroad. He hasn’t. He’s travelled a lot, but has no desire to move abroad; no desire to live anywhere else because in Slovenia, he has everything. Mountains, beaches, forests, caves, cities… and you know, he has a point. It’s easy to see the attraction. It does a weary heart good to see a people still in love with their homeland, still passionate about its story, eager to share its today while happily looking forward to its tomorrow. It truly is a magical place.

K-doh? Ky? Key-vay? K-day? Doesn’t make it any easier does it? Simple questions though, if you know Slovenian. Kdo – who? Me. Kaj – what? Passing the time until my lift to the country. Kje – where? Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. Kda – why? En route from Budapest to a work weekend for the European Scout Region’s adult resources group – too much info I know. In a nutshell, I had about six hours in Ljubljana before being picked up and driven to the final destination.

The last time I was in Ljubljana was in the 1980s when Slovenia was still part of Yugoslavia. I was backpacking and had met a chap called Tomas on the train from Trieste. There were no hostels in the city then and I couldn’t afford a hotel. He took me home to his mother, who lived high up in an apartment block about two hours by train from the city. The middle of nowhere. To get to his flat, we had to call to each of the  neighbours first and my rite of passage was diluted by thimbles of some very potent liquor. I was rat arsed by the time I met mum and she freaked when she heard I was Irish (we had a bad rep in those days). She calmed somewhat when he explained I was Catholic and that it was the Protestants who brought the bombs! Something definitely got lost in that translation.

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I didn’t spend long in Ljubljana then; and six hours this time wasn’t a lot either. But it was enough to get a feel for what’s a rather small and compact city. I loved it. It’s the sort of place that reminds you of lots of places – considering most of it was destroyed in the 1895 earthquake, it’s retained much of its elegance. For one who is usually drawn to the older parts of  town, the opposite happened here. Yes, the old town is lovely. But living in this part of the world, I’m in danger of becoming inured to lovely old stuff and it’s good every now and then to rattle the cage and look towards the new. Like Metelkova City.

This club complex includes a youth hostel that was a prison and is a fine example of reclaiming old space. The result is fantastic. The self-described ‘autonomous culture zone’ was born in 1993 when a group of artists, musicians and war refugees squatted in what was the former Army barracks. Spraypainted to within an inch of its life, it’s gobsmacking! And some of the sculptures are what nightmares are made of.

Metelkova City Ljubljana

You can’t help getting the feeling that someone, somewhere is giving someone the finger. It’s too way out to be generally accepted, tucked away as it is just five minutes’ walk from the train station. I headed in that direction because I’d heard of the Hostel Celica – the old jail house turned youth hostel. I planned to be back in the city Saturday night to get an early train Sunday morning, so I needed a bed for that night. I rather fancied staying in one of their cells – partly to see if  my ghosts had been fully laid to rest and partly because it was different! It was full… and anyway, I never did make it back to the city …another story.

My ‘direct’ train from Ljubljana to Budapest on Sunday, the one that involved no changes… or so I was assured when I booked it, actually turned into five trains and two buses. Quite the experience. Maybe I unknowingly trod on something in Metelkova… something that temporarily removed the order from my life and inserted in its place a sort of controlled chaos.

More than a year ago, on April 15, I signed the papers for my flat in Budapest. It marked the beginning of what I saw as a new era – one in which I would truly come into my own. No more working for big corporates, selling my soul in 8-hour segments. No more having to ask for a day off. No more resenting time wasted on those unproductive days that should have been spent under a duvet. Signing that contract was more than a simple act of purchase. Yes, I was buying a flat, but more importantly I was buying into a new way of life.

img_1644So, I was buying in the wrong part of town, at a time when prices maybe were higher than expected, when the exchange rate wasn’t exactly going my way but I was buying. I was putting down roots. I’d finally made the decision that I’d managed to avoid thus far. I was settling down. More than a year later and that decision finally feels right. Not that I for a minute believe I’ll end my days on Üllői út – but for the moment, this is home. And for the first time, it’s starting to feel like home.

I cooked lamb dinner Easter Sunday. I dragged the kitchen chairs into the living room and we sat around the dining table… that centrepiece of civility. It was lovely. Each of us brought something to the table. Each of us in Budapest by choice, be it choosing to come or choosing to stay. Balcony doors open, cool breeze blowing through, fine wine, good company, great food. Companiable silences punctuated by police sirens and ambulances. Background music mixing nicely with the steady beat of traffic. The view from the balcony into the 9th district was heady.

The 9th has been renovated to within an inch of its life. New street lamps reflect off the shiney new-build walls. Old and new sit side by side creating that intangible cosmopolitanism that is the mark of Capital city. It struck me that I could be living anywhere, in any big European city, and I was at once pleased with the thought and yet somewhat dejected. This one should somehow be different.

And then I looked to my left and saw Üllői út in all its glory. It runs southeastwards from Kalvin tér all the way to timg_16492he airport. At the Kalvin tér end, there are lots of neo-classical buildings (including one by the famous Ybl Miklos – No. 17). Where it intersects the Korut, there’s the Museum of Applied Arts and as you travel further out, Semmelweiss University and ‘the offices’. It seems like new buildings go up overnight. What makes it though, is the trees. Standing to attention on either side of the road, like a guard of honour resplendent in their green uniforms, they are truly magnificent. And that particular evening, they smelled of home.

Tonight, the lovely MI, who has introduced me to so much here in Budapest, introduced me to Kosztolányi . We had been talking about the trees. Yes, I am home.

The yellowed fields are withering, trees of Ulloi út
My moods like suns of autumn sink;
soughing and slowly blows the wind
and kilts the past spring’s root.

O where, 0 where does fly the youth?
You sad leaved trees, 0 tell the truth,
trees of Ulloi út

 For more on Üllői út, see my recent article in the Budapest Times

Updated 14 May 2011 : I walked up from Kalvin tér today, along Üllői út and for the first time noticed this plaque to the great man himself. It surprised me. I’ve walked that street many times and I wonder why I’ve never noticed it before. And why today? Perhaps because I’ve finished reading a collection of his stories? Perhaps because I was looking up and around instead of down at the street? Perhaps because I’d stopped, just then, to let someone by. For whatever reason, it was nice to see and nicer still to see that Üllői út can still surprise me.

img_15871It’s only now the penny has dropped. When I first started talking about moving to Budapest, one recurrent theme in the advice offered by soon-to-be-friends and those more experienced in the BP property trade, was ‘don’t buy in the 8th district’. Lord knows I heard it often enough for it to sink in. And I was sure it had.

Last week, the lovely MI invited me to dinner and asked me where I’d like to go. I wanted to stay local – I am conscious that most of my socialising is done over in the 6th and if I’m to lend any credence to my localism advocacy, I need to start patronising some back-street hostelries closer to home. We set off from the flat and instead of following my usual route up Ulloi út  to the Korut, we turned right into what seemed to be one massive construction site. img_1625

While picking our way through bricks and mortar, breathing in the heady fumes of fresh concrete, I was struck by the incongruity of it all. It reminded me so much of when they first started ‘rebuilding’ inner city Dublin. Lots and lots and lots of new buildings going up, with lots of old ones having been demolished.

The restaurant, on Náp utca, doesn’t believe in advertising itself. On my own, I’d have walked past it. Inside it was dressed to kill. Yet we were the only diners. Friday night. Just us. In the ghetto. The 8th district.

We had drinks in the courtyard (udvár) and it felt slightly peculiar to be sipping on a rather nice Villanyi Rosé while the neighbours in the flats above the restaurant sat on their balconies, enjoying a cigarette and an after-work cocktail, while looking down on us from on high.

While walking through the same area the next afternoon, what got me most was the juxtapositioning of old and new and I wondered, for the fifty-millionth time, where the planners were!!!!!! When I was searching for my flat, HM knew not to even show one if I could look out any window and see a new build. Even though I lean more towards tradition than modernity,  I like modern architecture. I can appreciate good design. I don’t think we need to replace like with like in a vain attempt to make time stand still. I do img_1616believe, though, that there’s a very fine line between tat and taste. And when it comes to designing a new building that will sit admist those long established, just a tiny bit of thought would make all the difference.  

I am sure that of the new builds in BP have been pilfered from the Costa dels – monstrosities in shape and form, painted in colours that look wonderfully chic on Burano but gaudy in the Budapest sun. img_1617

Irish journalist Peter Murphy (think  Damien Lewis with a pen), wrote an excellent article for the Budapest Sun recently – Where the names have no streets. It will tell you more about the 8th that I ever could.

In the meantime, life is good and all is well. The search for furniture continues. I’ve finally posted a picture of  the piece that made my heart stop and I have added a rather quaint 1920’s stool and some really lovely etchings to my collection (still to be blogged). In the meantime, I’m weighing up to forints to see which way to go with my bookcase.  Decisions, decisions.

Back in 1817, a French Romantic novelist Henri-Marie Byle who wrote under the penname ‘Stendahl’ was visiting Florence. While visiting the Basilica of Saint Croce, he was so overwhelmed by its beauty that he had a turn. He later wrote in his diary: Everything spoke so vividly to my soul. Ah, if I could only forget. I had palpitations of the heart. Life was drained from me, what in Berlin they call ‘nerves’. I walked with the fear of falling. It wasn’t until 1979 that the condition was diagnosed and named ‘Stendhal’s syndrome’ by an Italian psychiatrist, Dr Graziella Magherini, who noticed similar psychosomatic conditions – racing heat beat, nausea and dizziness – among first-time visitors to the city. Had I not lived in Alaska for so many years and seen beauty in is rawest, most majestic form, I, too, might have suffered from Stendhal’s syndrome during my four days in Venice. It truly is a remarkable city.

 

Gondolas in front of Rialto in Venice

Gondolas in front of Rialto

From the air, it looks like a fish: the fat body containing the sestieres (the six districts that form Venice) of Cannaregio, Santa Croce, San Polo, San Marco and Dorsoduro with Castello making up the tail. It lives amongst the lagoon islands of Murano, Burano, San Giorgio Maggiore, Lido, Torcello, Guidecca, Sant’Erasmo and San Michelle. Cycling is forbidden and cars are few and far between, generally left parked in the Piazzale Roma, from where commuters travel onwards on foot or by boat.  You can take the vaporetto (a waterbus) on both canals. To cross from one side to the other on the Grand Canal between bridges, you can take the traghetto (a gondola in which you stand up rather than recline regally).  And there’s always the water taxi. You can, of course, hire your own gondola for a romantic trip through the rios. That experience I thought I’d save for later!

There are supposedly more than 500 bridges in the city and I’d say we crossed most of them. It’s a veritable labyrinth and next time I go, I’m going to do away with the map and just wander. If you get lost, you simply look up to find a yellow sign pointing the general direction of San Marco, or Rialto, or Piazzale Roma. Half the fun is finding your way home and it is so easy to walk around in circles for hours, ending up right back where you started. It’s all about the journey.

Sunshine on a calle in Venice

Sunshine on a calle

Growing up with roads and streets and squares, and having coped with the út (road), utca (street), and tér (square) in Budapest, it took a while to get my head around the Venetian toponyms: liste (main steets), crosere (crossroads), calle (a narrow street, some hardly a shoulder width, running between houses), rama (short calles, often cul-de-sacs), ruga ( a straight calle full of shops), salizzada (the first paved calli), rio (canal)  rio tera (a canal that has become a calle), fondamenta (a calle with houses on one side and a rio on the other), campo (square), corti (squares hidden inside groups of houses), sortoporgego (a passageway through a building).

Looking down the calli, particularly in Cannaregio and Costello, you see clotheslines strung between the buildings on either side with bunting-like laundry flapping in the breeze. The smell of washing powder mixes headily with the salty smell of the sea. Shoes sit on windowsills and fur coats hang in windows to air. Every inch of space is used. Venice has no more room – what’s there is being renovated – but there is no room for expansion. In the ghetto, they coped with expanding numbers by building upwards, the first skyscrapers. The doors vary so much is size that you have to wonder who lives behind them.

The buildings, old and weary, stand proudly, defying the water to do its worst, the lower third battled scarred and watermarked. The city floods at least twice a year and you can see the evidence. Neat stacks of tables wait patiently for the time when they will be set end to end to create paths above water level when the floods come. Stories abound of Venetians coming out of the cinema to be faced with a ‘wade’ home, the more cavalier men piggybacking their dates.  Everything we have on road, Venice has on water: fireboats, ambulance boats, police boats, medical boats, delivery boats, garbage boats. It really is something else.

 We spent our days wandering the streets, popping in and of shops and churches, having the occasional ice cream and the odd coffee. As ‘spending a penny’ in Venice can cost as much as €1.50, having a coffee and using their loo seemed more economical. There are all sorts of hidden charges so your bill is rarely what you expect. It is cheaper by far to eat and drink standing up then to sit down, inside or outside. We just had to have lunch on our last day at a little trattoria in San Toma that had a big sign in the window saying ‘NO COVERT CHARGE’…. a typo or a Venetian with a sense of irony?

The mind boggles at the skill and craftsmanship that went into building those churches. Some of them are massive – you’d fit five Irish churches into the one at Frari. And there are so many of them. We got mass one evening and ended up staying for vespers because it would have been rude to leave. It was my first time at vespers and a shame that I didn’t understand a word of what was being said.

Venetian mask from Venice

Sadly there are more tourists in Venice than there are residents. Government support for artisans and craftworkers translates into lots of working studios for painters, jewelers, and mask makers who seem to do it for the love of it rather than for money; customers almost seem to intrude. Like everything else, the genuine articles are endangered by cheap imports from China. Tourists are faced with a choice of spending €20 on a mask from a trader or €120 for a real, hand-made-in-Venice one. Given that it is an expensive city overall, many take the cheaper option (and no, you don’t even have to ask which one I went for….) Perhaps more could be done to highlight the fakes… knowing you’re buying a fake is one thing; thinking you’re buying the genuine article is another. On Murano, shops have signs in their windows saying they use only local glass. Those that don’t have these signs… well, you’re pretty safe in assuming that they’re importing the funny stuff! This ethical consumerism can be expensive!

After a couple of days walking the streets of the sestieres, we took to water and went island-hopping (and yes, it is possible to get lost on water as well). Up until a few years ago, San Michelle was where Venetians were buried; now it’s full so new bodies are taken to the mainland. Amongst the famous buried on this island are  Stravinksy and his wife Vera. It was sad, in a way, to see his grave laden with flowers and hers quite bare. How difficult is it, I wonder, to be married to fame? Ezra Pound and Joseph Brodsky are also at home there. The graves seem to sprout flowers … the Venetians take care of their dead.

Glass sculpture in Murano, Venice

Glass sculpture

We then headed to Murano, home of the famous murano glass, with its glassworks and street sculptures. Boats laden with boxes addressed to Holland, New York and even South Africa, lined the canals. They will ship anywhere. And it was so very, very tempting. But sense reigned and I limited my purchases to a Christmas tree ornament. Next stop was supposed to be Tortello, but we missed it. We went to the end of the line, disembarked, had a beer, and came back to Burano. Missing your stop at sea is a little like trying to turn back on the freeway.

It’s impossible not to smile on Burano. Famous for its lace (and yes, I succumbed to two scarves) its colourful houses are so cheerful. Bright, bright pinks and blues and yellows and greens – residents must compete to find the gaudiest colours possible and then paint with pride.

By a rio in Burano, Venice

By a rio in Burano

The town square in the evening is full of kids playing, adults chatting, and a palpable sense of happiness and well-being. A lovely spot.

The sounds in the city are quite typical: church bells and conversation. But in Venice, there is another one: the sound of what I thought to be rolling luggage. And then I realized it was rolling shopping bags. While you can find any amount of craft shops and churches, restaurants and bars, it’s hard to find a supermarket or a corner shop. You just follow the bag lady!  And these wheelie shoppers are young and trendy, male and female – it’s not just the purview of English or Hungarian old ‘granny’ types… it’s almost fashionable!

bag-ladies-at-rialto-fish-market

And the locals certainly have style. Italian men dress so well. Even a trip to the fish market warrants careful thought and preparation. They are manicured and tailored without being effete. The gondoliers have a style of their own about them, too. One restaurant maître domo enticed us to sit a while with his dramatic rendition of ‘my mind is open, my heart is open, my restaurant is open…’ When Venetians pass each other on the street, the conversation starts as soon as they see each other, and continues well after they’ve passed each other by. Those Venetians you see apparently talking to themselves (with no visible mobile phone mics) are just talking to the person behind them walking in the opposite direction.

Of course, no trip to Venice would be complete without a visit to Harry’s Bar. It’s the reason I went and the reason I’ve been going for years but only now got there. The home of carpaccio and the bellini, Harry’s Bar was a home from home to Hemingway. It’s a quiet, unimposing bar/restaurant on the corner of Calle Valerroso. The prices are astronomical, and deliberately so. They’re designed to separate the genuine article from the fakes – those that want to sit for a while where Hemingway sat, enjoying the palpable legacy of greatness as opposed to those who read about it, know something of the man, and want to add it to the list of sights seen. While we were there, so many came in, sat down, opened the menu, read the prices and left.  The waiters were so used to this, they didn’t blink an eye. Thankfully, I had a credit card and had come a long way and waited a long time to taste my first bellini… and I’ll be back.

 

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