March is one of my favourite months of the year. It has everything I could hope for by way of entertainment: great rugby as the Six Nations tournament continues, great speeches as the final of the Gift of the Gab draws near (Orfeum, March 14), and the St Patrick’s Day parade in Budapest (March 17). It’s a great month to be Irish in Budapest.

Now I’m on record as having little time for the type of expat who surrounds themselves with people from home; the type whose main aim in life is to recreate a mini-Ireland, a mini-England or a mini-wherever, in whatever city they expatriate themselves to. I’m all for moving abroad and embracing the culture of your new country – for however long you might stay. Travel broadens the mind; living amidst the locals gives you a new perspective and very often causes you to question long held and perhaps outmoded beliefs. I’m not for a minute suggesting that we all forget whence we came. But if we take advantage of our newness to ask questions, read up on the history, make an effort to learn the language, and generally mingle with the masses, it’s surprising how many links to home will appear unbidden.

The Hungarian connection

A couple of matches ago (this is how my time is measured in March) I was sitting in Jack Doyle’s delighted with Ireland’s solid win over Italy. I was in the company of two of the most intrepid expats I’ve come across in years. Their curiosity knows no bounds and their eagerness to make the most of their time in Budapest is a stark reminder of how quickly many of us start to take this city for granted. They’d just come back from Győr and asked me if I was aware of the Irish link with the city. I was a little taken aback to find that I didn’t know and a little embarrassed to think that I’ve yet to take the time to stop in the city and not simply train my way through it.

From Galway to Győr

(C) Des Nix

The story starts in 1649 when Oliver Cromwell was busy persecuting Catholics in Ireland. Priests and nuns were hunted down without mercy; many were executed for practicing their religion. The then Bishop of Clonfert, Walter Lynch, one step ahead of Cromwell, fled first to Galway and then to Inishboffin Island from where he was smuggled out of the country to Belgium. With him, he brought a painting of Our Lady praying over the sleeping infant Jesus. Some years later, in 1655, he ended up in Vienna where he met the Bishop of Győr, János Pusky, who offered him as job as pastor of the Cathedral and later appointed him Auxiliary Bishop.

Exit Cromwell; enter Charles II

Just as Bishop Lynch had decided he could end his exile and return safely to Ireland, he died unexpectedly in 1663. In his will, he bequeathed his treasured painting to the city as a thank you for giving him a home. The painting hung without incident for 34 years in the cathedral at Győr. Many came to venerate, sure that Our Lady had interceded on their behalf ensuring victories over the Turks. But while Hungary was enjoying its newfound peace in 1697, Catholicism in Ireland was once again under threat.

On March 16, 1697, the Irish Parliament in Dublin convened. The first order of business was to consider and vote upon the passage of the Banishment Act to rid the country of all bishops, priests, and religious from Ireland. Drastic times, drastic measures.

One day later, on St Patrick’s Day, March 17, 1697, a miracle occurred in Győr. The Madonna in Walter Lynch’s painting began to cry tears of blood. Witnesses from many different religious denominations failed to provide an explanation. Word got out and thousands flocked to see the Weeping Madonna, many leaving their signatures as testament to what they had seen. The linen cloth used to dry the Madonna’s tears is now on display alongside her image.

Irish-Hungarian links

In 1997, to mark the 300-year anniversary of the Madonna’s tears of anguish, the Bishop of Clonfert John Kirby visited Győr. He had this to say: The kindness shown to Bishop Walter Lynch has led to an unusual link between the small Irish rural diocese of Clonfert and the large Hungarian diocese of Győr […] It has shown us the value of friendship and the way that the consideration shown to a refugee can deepen the understanding between peoples who might otherwise never have known each other.

When I think of all the great people, both Irish and Hungarian, whom I never would have met had I not taken that train to Budapest in 2007, I could shed a tear or two myself.

First published in the Budapest Times 9 March 2012

Up hill and down vale. Sliding forward on the sides of my feet trying to stay upright. Hurtling down the steep slopes and breaking my fall by running into  trees. As ungainly as you could imagine and far from my idea of fun. So why then, as October 30 dawned earlier than usual thanks to daylight savings, did I roust myself from peaceful slumber head to the Pilis hills?

Ever since I first heard of Dobogókő (pulsating stone), I’ve wanted to touch it. In my innocence, I thought it would be well signposted and within relatively easy reach of civilisation. But until the rock’s force is proven scientifically, the local mayor of Pilisszentkereszt apparently has no intention of adding signs and notices showing us the way. There are tens of paths clearly marked, lots of trails, plenty of car parking, and the world and her mother were out for the day – but a little like the chakra site I visited in Wavel Cathedral in Krakow, you needed a sixth sense to get you there (or someone in the know).

Apparently, there are energy lines that create invisible energy nets around the world. Now imagine the intersections of these lines to be the Earth’s acupuncture points. Just as we humans have acupuncture points, so, too, does Mother Earth. Where many lines cross, we have sacred places like Stonehenge and Machu Picchu. But just 30 miles from Budapest, in the Pilis hills, lie the greatest number of intersecting lines, which, according to those in the know, is where the heart chakra of the world is. And to make it even more interesting, if you fly over this area, you will see the Danube’s tributaries weave their heart-shaped way around the Pilis hills. And, in the very centre of this two square kilometres is the heart stone – the pulsating rock – Dobogókő. Well, actually, that’s the name of the area. The rock itself is called Ferenczy sziklá (anyone know why?)

The inimitable MI asked directions from this woman who looked liked she was in the know. Follow the yellow trail until you get to what looks like a temple rock and then go down, left. Keep on going. Nothing is signposted. We got to what MI thought was a temple rock (I’d obviously forgotten to pack my imagination) and we started going down. And down. And down. We happened across a couple coming up and asked again. Keep on going down until you find the road and the electricity poles (No! Say it’s not true! Not in myforest! And that, believe me, is the limit to my possessiveness.) And a church that isn’t a church but part of the water supply administration. And then you should see a székelykapu (carved Transylvanian gate). And then go up until you find the rock. Nothing is signposted. So down, and down, and down we went, farther and farther from any other voices or human contact. No bread to leave a trail. No water in case we got really lost. No way to know exactly where we were. But at some stage I had a text welcoming me to Slovakia.

Absolutely beautiful scenery – and in between moments of blind panic, I managed to stop for a breather and appreciate it. For someone who took forever to get us out of Budapest earlier that morning (I drive, I don’t navigate), MI had discovered an inner navigational eye. When gentle hints that we might be lost and getting even more lost fell on deaf ears, I realised I had two choices – go back on my own, or follow. I followed. Eventually we hit the road. So, right or left? You know me and decisions… had it been up to me, we’d still be there. We went left. And we found the church-like water building. And then we came across a lone woman with two bicycles (?) She was perched on a pile of freshly cut logs reading a book. Unasked, she pointed us right. And we found the gate. And then sometime later, after what seemed like hours of looking at the heels of MI’s hiking boots, we were up on the rock.

About eight other hikers (hey, I can call myself that – I have the boots!) were gathered around admiring the view over the painted rock and congratulating themselves for having found the place. Not quite what I’d planned. Down to the left a little was the rock we’d actually come to see. I’d banked on 10 minutes of quiet meditation and some infusion of heart energy. Anything, actually, that might help my chakras align and send out the right message to the universe that I’m getting fed up waiting for himself to show up. So off we went. As we rounded the corner, we heard voices. Three men. One sitting crosslegged, eyes closed, fingers in meditative position, apparently experienced enough to be able to drown out the monologue the ould fellah was carrying on about the virtues of home brewing. Definitely not part of the plan. Our orator showed no sign of moving and his audience of one, the Third Man, seemed settled in for the long haul. There was no way I was going to get my 10 minutes alone with the pulse any time soon. I settled for a few seconds of quiet communing between yer man’s paragraphs – touched the rock for a minute (I must have caught it between heartbeats) – and then turned to face home.

So I’ve done it. I’ve been to the heart chakra of the world. The journey through the Pilis hills was gobsmackingly gorgeous. The villages, like Pilisszentlélek (Pilis Holy Spirit), belong on chocolate boxes. Stopping for some friss pisztráng in Dunabogdány on the way back, capped it all off. It is days like today that make everything else worthwhile and remind me that life in my world is never boring. (And has life changed? Has it ever! I only had to drive around the block three times before a parking space opened up – and, wait for it, it was the closest to my front door. I’m booking the band tomorrow!)

When I first saw the word Lottóház on a building on the corner of  Ferenc Korut and Üllői út , I was curious. I asked around. Someone told that this was the site of the old Killián Kaszárnya (Killian barracks) that had been razed in 1956 during the October Revolution. They went on to tell me that when the current block of flats was built on the site of the barracks, people were too superstitious to buy them so the state decided to raffle them off. That way, people were buying lottery tickets and not the flats, per se. I’ve been happily repeating this story each time I have visitors and we walk up to Corvin Negyed to catch the tram. I can’t for the life of me remember who told me. Perhaps I read it somewhere. Or perhaps I’ve made it all up.

This weekend, out and out with the lovely MI, we walked up Fő utca and she pointed out another Lottóház – one of three I now know of built in Budapest, the third being over on Múzeum  Korut (see this bi-lingual blog for details of the PLACC project about No. 9).

Apparently, back between 1958 and 1968, this was quite a trend in Budapest – building flats and then raffling them off in a sweepstake. Funded by the National Lottery, these building were quickly built – often ready in just 12 months – to replace those damaged in the war. Imagine living in an apartment block full of winners – I wonder what that would do for your outlook on life …

I was in Rome once. And visited St Peter’s. Jammed, elbow to elbow, with the other tourists eager to have a look at Michaelangelo’s great work of art, I couldn’t help but wish for a bench I could lie down on and from that horizontal position, have just five minutes to look at the ceiling above me. I had the same feeling in Vác catherdral lately. Mind you, I suppose I could have stretched out on one of the pews, but somehow it didn’t seem quite appropriate.

Modelled on St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the cathedral in Vác dates back to 1777. Deceptively plain from the outside, its ceilings and walls are something to behold. I’m not a huge fan of ornate churches but I could spend time in this one.

By the time Vác was liberated from Turkish occupation in 1686, it was practically deserted and in ruins. Dogged by bad luck, a fire in 1731 burned down 198 of the 229 houses but by the 1770s, a baroque city built on medieval remains was taking shape. The bishops (the city’s landlords) made a huge effort to repopulate the city (with Catholics, naturally) offering various benefits such as free building sites, materials or tax breaks (and some present-day governments think they thought this stuff up!)  Most of the  newcomers were Germans, with some Czech, Slovak, Croatian, Serbian, Morvian, and even a number of French and Italian settlers taking up residence. Even today, the city has a very multicultural and arty feel to it.

If you fancy a day out from Budapest, you could do a lot worse. Hidden somewhere in the city is an amazing antique barn owned by a Dutch guy – I was there once and have never found it since. And another, Hungarian-owned antique building up a side road is chock full of great stuff. Couldn’t find that one, either. Damn breadcrumbs…  will pay more attention in future.

I never liked fish, until I went to live in Valdez, Alaska, and fish was practically all we had to eat in the summer. I could cook salmon 23 different ways at last count and was quite inventive when it came to halibut, too. I even learned to fillet a fish and got over my squeamishness about blood and guts and scales and slime. I had to be dragged off the beach in clamming season and have been known to eat as many as two dozen digger clams in one sitting. But to my shame, until Swaney took me shrimping one day, I never knew shrimp had eyes. That took some getting used to.

Way back when, as a mere toddler in Waterford, the highlight of the summer would be to go to Dunmore East to choose our mackerel from the fishing trawlers as they tied up at the pier.  I was more than a little disturbed when I heard that in Alaska, mackerel were used as bait.

Here in Budapest, since Ocean has closed, there really isn’t any place in town that has good fish all the time (or at least anywhere that I know about) – and truth be told, after years of fishing for my own or enjoying fish so fresh you’d swear it was still breathing, for free, I can’t bring myself to pay high prices for fish that has travelled cross-country to land on my plate.

So, out and about on Saturday, our whole day had but one objective – to end up in Dunabogdány when it was time to eat so that we could have some friss pisztráng (fresh trout) at Siesta Café. Considering they only serve trout, potatoes and salad it still took a while to choose a topping  – I finally went with pesto  and was delighted to see that they used pine nuts. Thankfully, we went for a half salad/half spuds option as the servings are huge. Open from 12 noon each day to just after 8pm, it’s well worth the journey. It’s on the right, just as you leave the village coming from Budapest. And, if you time it well, you just might catch a game of cricket.

Sitting by the banks of the Danube, having picked my fish clean, still ruminating over Round 1 of the Gift of the Gab, I was reminded of the old Hemingway quote: ‘To me heaven would be a big bull ring with me holding two barrera seats and a trout stream outside that no one else was allowed to fish in and two lovely houses in the town; one where  I would have my wife and children and be monogamous and love them.’ Who ever would have thought that I’d be talking about monogamy and trout in a public forum in the same week. You gotta love this country!

Just 30 km from the Balaton in the direction of Kaposvár lies the little town of Somogyvámos where  Krishna Völgy (Krishna Valley) sits. Its 260 hectares houses a cultural centre, an eco farm, a village (complete with temple and school) and 150 Krishna devotees committed to living in accordance with the ancient Vedic scriptures. When I mentioned to  Foodie friend of mine in the UK that I was going to visit the Haré Krishnas at home in Eco Valley, she immediately started talking about milk. Here in Hungary, as at George Harrison’s old mansion in Hertfordshire in the UK, cows enjoy a sacred life. There is a strict no-kill policy. No matter how old, how decrepit, how useless, the animals live out their natural lives…and do so quite happily, it would seem.

Each animal has its own name. I was personally introduced to Radhika and fell madly in love. (Don’t tell me you’re surprised?) Srila Prabhupada, the founder of the Haré Krishna movement, set up farm communities almost from the git go [and there I was thinking they simply danced in the streets]. His idea of ‘simple living, high thinking’ is realised by the community in Krishna Völgy who are striving, in so far as practically possible, to be self-sufficient. Srila Prabhupada, like all persons so inspired, apparently had a stock of quotable quotes – morsels of wisdom that might, on first hearing, seem somewhat inane, but on deeper reflection, capture huge concepts in tiny phrases. You can’t eat nuts and bolts. No, you can’t. A simple statement – but think of what it implies: by being dependant on  bulls and cows, by working the land in order to be self-sustainable, and by protecting these animals in harmony with the natural laws of God, Haré Krishnas utilize this life in a conscious fashion [the keyword for me in all of this is ‘conscious’].

But back to the happy cows and their gifts of milk, butter, curd, yogurt, and cheese. And don’t forget the urine and the dung, both of which are used in traditional Ayurvedic medicine. Dung is also used as fuel for cooking and many believe it to be a powerful antiseptic [others disagree]. Late last year, the Guardian ran an article on two extremes – a proposed new 8000-head dairy farm and a small farm of just 44 cows and oxen (on the aforementioned former home of Beatle George Harrison). And, having discovered ahimsa [slaughter-free] milk, they asked a panel of experts to do a taste test between it and supermarket milk. No surprise which won.

So, I met the cows here in Hungary (one even gave birth the day I was there) and they are beautiful. And with each one having its own name, they’re very real. My granny had a farm and I’m well used to cows and calves and cows calving. Some had names but as kids, we were never encouraged to get attached to them as one day, we’d most likely be meeting them at the kitchen table. Talking to cows as if they were, well,  human, seemed a tad peculiar. And not for the first time, I found myself wondering at the innate human kindness that has been subversed to a greater or lesser degree in many of us, all in the name of progress.

I started reading up on ahimsa milk [according to the website: no bulls or cows were slaughtered or exploited to produce it] and discovered that this isn’t quite what it says. Ahimsa (Sanskrit: Devanagari; अहिंसा; IAST ahiṃsā, Pāli: avihiṃsā) is a term meaning to do no harm (literally: the avoidance of violencehimsa). And can there really be such a thing as ahimsa milk? According to Dusyanta dasa, picking a carrot and feeding it to a cow who is producing milk is violence by the human and the cow… ergo the milk cannot be non-violent (ahimsa).

Oh yes… I can see eyes being rolled to heaven and can hear vague murmurings of ‘she’s lost the plot’. But no, I haven’t stopped drinking supermarket milk – it’s not practical for me to do so. But I do think of Radhika as I drink it. And I am convinced that if we were all just a tad more aware of what we do and a tad more willing to accept responsibility for our actions, the world would be a creamier place. mmmm….might milk have become my metaphor?

Yesterday, I met Norbert. Norbert is in his mid-thirties and spends his day in the corner of a cot in a room at the Topház Speciális Otthon in Göd, about a half-hour drive from Budapest. His world is the room he shares with Tony and Dani. Although I had a hard time believing it, Norbert is one of the luckier residents: he has not been forgotten.

A few months ago, when the charity arm of the IHBC launched its Give a Little campaign, its aim was to get a bunch of volunteers together to spend a day somewhere, doing some much-needed work. Volunteerism is very much part of the Irish psyche of expectation. Evidence of community involvement and volunteer activity has been a key requirement on Irish CVs for decades. It’s very much part of our culture. Many ex-pats in Hungary find it difficult to get involved, to do something more concrete than forking over a few forints. So when Declan Hannigan, Chair of the Give a Little campaign, organised a day at the centre in Göd, he wasn’t short of volunteers.

On Saturday morning, at 8.30 am, 33 adults and five children began a day that would not be quickly forgotten. Our task: to paint one of the residential houses and to do some gardening. Throughout the morning as we set about organising ourselves to do what had to be done, many of us spoke of how it wasn’t nearly as bad as we’d been expecting.

Mention ‘orphanage’ and immediately we flash back to TV images of old communist blocks in Romania and Bulgaria with patients living in horrendous conditions, supervised with military precision, made all the more stark for its complete lack of feeling. The bungalow we worked on was light and airy. It was a little disturbing to see the metal beds, each with a simple foam mattress, cotton cover, and a blanket,  bolted to the floor. Wardrobes bore the names of the room’s occupants and few toys were visible. The common area was a combination of kitchen and living room, decorated with bright murals; the padlock on the fridge looked a little out of place, but as we would learn, life here works to a different set of rules and expectations. Overall, though, the impression was good. The collective sigh of relief was almost audible – this wasn’t nearly as harrowing as we had expected.Outside in the grounds, more volunteers cut grass and trimmed hedges. The football pitch is now usable again and the front garden no longer looks like an unruly meadow. It was hard work. It was hot work. But it was rewarding work. Most of us, in our 9-5 workdays, rarely get the same level of satisfaction as we got yesterday from seeing a job well done. We started, we worked, we finished – we made a difference. No amount of money could buy that sense of accomplishment. For me, scraping the glue from the wardrobe doors and making those doors look new again was the most satisfying work I’ve done in ages.  As the international team of Irish, English, Scottish, Welsh, Hungarian,  American, and Russian  worked together, united in a common cause, we were fed by Jack Doyle’s, watered by Becketts, supplied with brushes from Kőházy Festékáruházak and paint from PoliFarbe.Although it’s a gated community, residents who can wander, wander freely. One chap had a fascination with smelling hair. Another simply wanted to name all the types of car parked out front. Daniel, the caretaker, had prepared us. We were the strangers; we were the ones out of place. So it was only to be expected that residents would be curious. Seeing such mental and physical disability up close and personal was harrowing. Those who wanted to, were taken in small groups to visit some of the wards.

There are 220 residents from all over Hungary housed in Göd aged 2 to 45. They’re looked after by 140 staff, most of whom work 12-hour shifts, day on, day off. There are four main wings, long dark corridors lined with airy rooms decorated in bright colours.  Rooms are decordated annually because the residents are not bound by societal rules of what you can and cannot do to a wall. Some pieces of plaster had been pulled away, kicked in, scribbled on. Toys hung from the ceiling so that residents couldn’t destroy them. Some don’t know their own strength. Televisions broadcast in every room and for many, that’s their view of the outside world.

The first ward we visited had 45 residents, all of whom could move about, walking or in their wheelchairs.  It’s staffed by four – a ratio of  less than one carer for every ten residents. Not enough on so many levels. Anita, just shy of 18,  wanted to shake hands and hug. I held her hand and found myself drawn into a tight hug. It was all I could do to hold it together. Anita is one of those who have been forgotten, left to the care of the state. She has never had a visitor. Her need, on whatever level, for physical contact was palpable. Alls sorts of emotions ran through me as we made our way up the ward. These residents all looked much younger than their years and I wondered briefly how much of that had to do with them not living in the ‘real world’ with all the stress and anxiety that this encompasses. They sat around, some on sofas, some in wheelchairs, some on the floor. Some were listless; others watched TV or each other. Some laughed, some made noises that might well have been laughter. Some did nothing at all, their bodies wasted, muscles atrophied, faces disfigured, but eyes bright and watchful showing that someone, a whole person, was home. Most were curious to know who we were. For them, we were a change in their routine. Something new. Something different. Later, in the Caledonia, over a pint or three, we would discuss whether that was what they needed – as well as painting or cutting grass, what if we spent time in the wards, just sitting, talking, and playing. What if we just visited?

In the next ward, we met cot after cot with young children, five or six to a room, each lying quietly, limbs contorted. One child’s  long, wasted legs conjured up images of famine-ridden Africa. Watchful eyes told us that they knew what was going on but just couldn’t communicate. One 4-year-old with encephalitis was being bottle fed. She has never had a visitor. Of the 40 residents in this ward, only 4 have regular visitors and even that might be an annual visit at Christmas. Ubiquitous Disney characters line the walls of the corridor. Soft toys look down on the kids from a height. The flickering TV screens provide noise and distraction. I hung back as the others went to say hi and make friends. All appeared visibly shaken. I was barely holding it together. Again I asked if we were intruding and again I was assured that this break in routine for the staff and for the residents was most welcome.

And then I saw Norbert. Norbert is a grown man in the bed of a child. Kneeling in corner of his cot, he looked over the bars out onto his world. I stared. I couldn’t help it.  He looked at me quizzically. The look he gave me wasn’t accusatory or defiant. It was neither helpless nor hopeful. I wanted to go over to him, to hold his hand, to talk to him. But I couldn’t. All my world experience garnered from years of education, work, travel, and relationships deserted me.  I didn’t know what to do. I swear he could feel it. His world is the room he shares with Tony and Dani. He probably has a better understanding of his life than I have of mine. His look said it all – don’t be sad: don’t pity me, but don’t forget me.

There are homes like this all over the world. The waiting lists are long. The disabilities are severe. The staff undervalued. While I might wonder how parents could give up their children and forget about them, I cannot judge. I don’t know their circumstances. I don’t know if I could cope, were I in their shoes. The staff who work at Topház Speciális Otthon are saints. They care. The residents seem happy. It’s a commmunity. Daniel, the caretaker, had a word for all he met on our travels. It’s underststaffed, underfunded, and over subscribed. Their wish list: CD players, TVs, adult beds, a hoist to lift the adults into their baths, material for the romper suits that need to be specially made, bed linens, mattresses, blankets, diapers… more money, more staff, more equipment.

I doubt that any one of us there yesterday came away unchanged. This was no TV commercial or broadcast documentary. This was real. Norbert is real. No matter how small or insignificant our contribution in the grand scheme of things, it felt damn good to make a difference. For those of you Irish and old enough to remember the Gorta ads, in the words of the inimitable Bunny Carr: Give a little. It would help a lot.

What better way to begin a Saturday than with an early morning phone call asking what I’m up to. mmmm… it’s Saturday. Not yet 9 am. I’m not even up. Had I heard about the new market on Haller utca? mmmm… do I even know where Haller utca is? As the remnants of the last week finally leave me and my brain starts to function again, the map comes into focus. Yes… that’s the street that runs between Űllöi and Mester… crosses Űllöi at Nagyvárad tér. I know where I am. So, apparently, the old farmers market has been revived with old tents being replaced with new stalls in Haller Park. Now, from what I heard, I had visions of a big market. Nothing specific gave me that impression – so there’s no suggestion of misrepresentation – I just expected a lot more than what I saw when I got  there. Yes, the food seemed fresh. Yes, the people seemed friendly.  Yes, the new stalls looked well. But Lehel tér, it ain’t!

Still, now that I was down in this part of the world, there was Haller Park to check out [note: not to be confused with Haller Park in Mombasa]. Once the biggest park in Budapest, it now has to content itself with being the biggest park in District IX. A little overgrown and wild, it’s easy to imagine that you’re miles from the city and not just 4km to that milestone at the start of the Clark Adam tunnel. Haller Camping would have you think that you’re in the heart of the city (I wonder how many unsuspecting tourists were caught out with than one, or would anyone in their right mind expect to find a campground in the ‘heart of the city’?) Still, seeing the campground crossed another unknown off my list. No longer will I have to plead ignorance when I’m asked directions (you’d be surprised the number of people who want to find the place!).And they’re right when they call it ‘the silent park’. You could hear a leaf fall.

Another find was St István’s hospital. Never knew where that was either! It’s a  grim looking place, mind you, and I’ll die happier if I never get to see the inside of it.  I’d passed Szent Vince’s church many times but never ventured across the intersection to check it out. It’s an imposing building on the corner of Haller and Mester but alas, it’s only open during mass times (or at least that’s what I could decipher from the notice on the door). That’s once a day for an hour. What a waste. And what a reflection on society! Churches that should be open to provide refuge and sanctuary from the teeming masses, from the 24/7 mania that is 21st century living, have shut their doors and barred their congregations. Was not impressed.

I have a bucket list. And given that I’m going to live until I’m 87, it’s quite an extensive one. It includes everything from walking the Ho Chi Minh trail to taking the 17-hour train journey from Baku to Tbilisi to having a long drink with Sam Waterston. Somewhere, buried amidst these dreams is to run my own, exclusive, B&B, where people would come to get away from it all – to go dark. No phones, no Internet, no iPads, no connection with the real world. An escape furnished with old-fashioned, paper bound books, music, and plenty of nooks and crannies to sit and do nothing. The ability to do nothing is in danger of dying out – we need to save it. But that’s another post. Right now, I’m trying a Jekyll and Hyde character on for size: a cantankerous curmudgeon, sometimes hard to keep quiet while other times you’d have more luck getting blood from a particularly insipid turnip than getting two consecutive sentences from me. I’ve not quite figured it out fully, but there have been days recently when that character is becoming slightly more real. In the meantime, I’ve been keeping my eye out for suitable properties and came across this one last weekend.

This house is for sale. And it’s gorgeous. It extends right out the back and would make a perfect guesthouse. Were I really serious about my bucket list, and had the wherewithal to make it into a reality, I’d consider buying it and ticking off ‘creating the ultimate getaway’ before I get too old to be bending over to take that homemade bread out of the oven. But while I am serious about my bucket list, it needs to be revised as I’m not all that serious about having strangers in my house. At least not in my current peopled outedness.

This is an idyllic piece of property though – it’s in quite good nick, has a great view, and is within spitting distance of its very own castle. What more could I want? It’s about a two-hour bus ride north of Budapest in the heart of the country with lots of great walking trails around it. Pop over to the next village, Kozárd, and you’re in Apple Valley.  But this house is in the village of Hollókő (raven on a stone) in the middle of a 141-ha nature reserve and is the only village in Hungary which is registered on UNESCO’s World Heritage list. For the last 25 years or so, its residents have, in effect, been living in a museum. So, were I to live here, I’d be part of this museum and have people peering over my fence every waking minute of the day. I am laughing to myself and thinking: were I in Valdez, I’d just load the house on a trailer and take it out of town! But I’m not. And it’s not. I won’t take it off my bucket list just yet – but I will demote it a few places. At least until I get over my people thing.

And, an aside: My man Sam is being honoured with a lifetime achievement award from Old Sturbridge Village (another living history museum – but not a real-life one, like Hollókő). Is that merely a coincidence or is the universe busy playing around with serendipity?

View from the window

I prefer boutiques to large department stores. I prefer boutique hotels to large chains. But as I’m on a boutique budget, a ‘complimentary’ weekend away at a five-star golf and spa resort in Hungary was not to be sneezed at! Buried in the little town of Bükfürdő close to the Austrian border, Birdland is something else! And I’m sure that for many of its regular guests, that something else is very special indeed.

Walking into the lobby to be greeted by a Country and Western duo belting out Achy Breakey Heart wasn’t quite what I expected. I’m a country gal at heart and Billy Rae is a sweetie, but this was bordering on the surreal. The duo on the reception desk, however, were singing a completely different tune. The rattattoo of Deutsch? Magyar? Angol? was delivered in rapid fire. Once it was established that we were Birdland virgins and ‘foreign’ foreign as opposed to ‘across the border’ foreign, something changed. I could have sworn that the patience quotient dropped a couple of notches. He was quite pleasant and toddled off to get us our welcome flutes of champagne. She was perhaps a tad under pressure, although there was no-one else in line. Not exactly encouraging.

The rooms were big; the towels were soft; the robes were fluffy. But no slippers???? How did they get the fifth star without slippers? The room came equipped with a hefty folder showcasing the wellness offers and the rules of the hotel (anything you bring in from outside that is sold on site will be confiscated – I’ve been known to smuggle in a pint of gin in garter belt, but never have I had to stoop so  low as to smuggle in a bottle of water!)

It’d been a busy few weeks. I’d completely spaced the ‘spa’ element of this weekend and had forgotten to get defuzzed. Showing my pins in public wasn’t really on the cards – particularly around all these fair-haired Austrians. And with the fresh snow outside, they’d be forgiven for thinking Yeti had made an appearance. So I tried to book a wax job at the spa. The two on the desk (everything in Birdland comes in pairs) went through the now familiar rattattoo – he was pleasant and she was obviously under pressure although again, there was no-one in line behind me. This time, patience levels were evidently sub-zero. The most they could possible do was a bikini wax – forget the whole leg – or even a half-leg. Didn’t I realise they were full? I could get a free consultation with a ‘plastical’ surgeon though…

Inside the spa, rows of sunloungers bore a liquorice allsorts of bodies. People wandered the corridors in towelling robes. Others sat at the bar, smoking and drinking, enveloped in fluffiness. My fellow diners were a mixed lot – those who’d dressed for dinner in heels and hematite mixing with tattoo’ed cowboys and tracksuited Traceys. The food, admittedly, was good – and there was plenty of it. And I understand the efficiency of a a buffet, but honestly, it did seem to jar a little with the whole ‘spa-ness’ thing given that when I think spa, I think healthy. And how can it be healthy to fill up your plate again, and again, and again?

When we headed out on Saturday morning to explore the hinterland, we left behind us a full car park. When we got back later that afternoon, our spot was still free. No-one had moved apparently. Obviously, when one goes to Birdland, one goes to Birdland – one takes up residency. I’ll know better next time… but wait, there won’t be a next time :0)