Back in the early 1900s, a Swiss baker and confectioner by the name of Frederick Belmont emigrated to England. He opened his first tea rooms in Harrogate, Yorkshire, in 1919. He called it Betty’s. No one knows who Betty was but today, the name Betty’s Tea Rooms is synonymous with craft baking and the quintessential English Afternoon Tea. It’s famous all over the world, with a mail order business that has customers as far away as Tokyo.

Afternoon tea was the furthest thing on my mind on a sunny August Balaton Sunday, and when my friends suggested we go visit their local tea rooms, I was a tad sceptical. The last thing I’d expect to find in the bucolic Hungarian village of Zalaszántó, or indeed anywhere in the Hungarian countryside, is an English tea room. While the topography might have a few Yorkshire nuances, I simply couldn’t imagine sipping Earl Grey from a china cup while eating homemade scones topped with strawberry jam and fresh cream. But an hour later, that’s exactly what I was doing.

12469444_788232327971164_7704246895881058254_oBack in 2007, Mancunian Ken Jones and Brighton-born Neil Stevens crossed the Austrian border to teach English in the Hungarian town of Mosonmagyaróvár. Stevens had worked as a speech therapist and Jones as a printer. But they reinvented themselves and went in search of an alternative life.

In 2011, they ventured deeper into the country and ended up in Zalaszántó, determined to live a sustainable, self-sufficient lifestyle, growing their own vegetables, raising their various animals, and living off the land. This mastered, they looked for a new challenge.

Neil’s grandmother, Dora, was a housekeeper. When she passed away, he inherited her collection of recipes. Ken’s grandmother, Florrie, used to work at Betty’s Tearooms in Harrogate. He, too, inherited her recipes. Both like to bake, make their own jams, and mix their own teas. Both like to chat, to meet new people, to live a stress free life. So, they thought, why not open an English Tea Room and call it Florridora’s Pantry.

They poured their first cuppa in December 2015. A write-up in the popular Hungarian magazine Meglepetés got the word out and now they open 11am-5pm five days a week (closed Mondays and Tuesdays) in summer and every weekend, year-round, with a largely Hungarian clientele.

13329477_872897272838002_6886031588714323125_oTheir little tea museum is educational. The old-fashioned English games set up in the garden, like hoops and hopscotch, give the kids something to do. And the 16-seat tea room with its backdrop of  Gatsby-era music is delightful. They’re reluctant to expand, although the demand is there; the small numbers make for a convivial atmosphere and gives them time to enjoy chatting with their guests. They really have this alternative lifestyle thing nailed.

The tea menu is extensive and includes such gems as hőlgyek teája (ladies tea), a cup of which will sooth those hot flushes; emésztést segítő keveréke (digestive blend) which will sort your indigestion; and csípõs fájdalomcsillapító (spicy pain relief) which will cure those aches and pains.  The cake selection changes regularly (I can highly recommend the Rocky Road). Everything is made fresh on the day from their own produce and it’s all very reasonably priced.

This year, the lads are moving into the Christmas market with aplomb. If you’re quick, you can order their homemade Christmas cakes (from one-portion cakes to 22 cm family numbers) and Christmas puddings. They’re slow-cooked over a wood stove and so need weeks of preparation. I’m sure if you ask nicely, they might even mail it to you. But then you’d miss out on the experience. Better to go pick it up yourself and sample the delights of this unlikely, but lovely, feature of the Hungarian countryside.

First published in the Budapest Times 26 August 2016

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One of the best things about Hungary is the festivals. On any given weekend you can find something going on somewhere. Sometimes you get lucky and find two festivals going on in the same place, the same weekend.

IMG_6813 (800x579)We headed to Veszprém last weekend for VeszprémFest, the annual five-day music extravaganza that turned teenager this year. I was really looking forward to the outdoor gig in front of the Archbishop’s Palace in the Veszprém Castle district. I’m quite partial to a little Baroque with my bopping. We’d booked into the charming Éllő Panzió because it’s within walking distance, so we were set. But fate took a hand.

IMG_6777 (800x600)IMG_6792 (800x600)On Friday night, we were to see Mancunian Lisa Stansfield but such was the demand that they had to move the gig to the outskirts of the city to the Aréna. I’m used to the strictures of Budapest venues where you can’t take a photo without being publicly reprimanded and have to check your coat in the cloakroom and dare not stand up in your seat unless everyone else is standing, too.  But within three songs, she had the crowd out of their seats and swarming the stage. People were recording tracks on their phones, taking videos, and snapping happy. It seems like anything goes.

On Saturday night, it was Jamie Cullum. He was rained out though, and moved inside to a curtained section of the Aréna. Not as popular at the box office but an amazing gig. If Stansfield was good, Cullum was awesome. The festival is quite something.

A few years ago, they started a complementary Rosé, Riesling, and Jazz festival to run the same week. Lots of vineyards participate offering some excellent wine choices, good food, and three jazz gigs centre stage each evening in Óváros Tér . Thanks to the lovelies Szandra and Irma from Győr, who generously shared their taxi and got us back into town on Friday night in time for the last session, we had a blast. And we figured we could make it back for the second half of Fábián Juli & Zoohacker the next night, too, but the weather gods intervened.

The city is a year-round hive of festivity. My picks for the rest of the year are the Street Music festival (22-25 July), the Fairy Tale festival (18-20 September), and the Veszprém Games, an international art competition and festival that runs 7-12 October. And if those don’t grab you, there’s plenty more.
IMG_6849 (600x800)IMG_6846 (600x800)IMG_6842 (800x600)The city has a lot to offer by way of things to see (even when it’s raining non-stop and the temperature has dropped 15 degrees overnight). There are a couple of excellent exhibitions currently going on. In St Emeric Piarist and Garrison Church, there’s a gorgeous display of photos of frescos from a church in Romania (now on my bucket list) and across from St Michael’s Basilica (where we saw three weddings, on the hour at 2pm, 3pm and 4pm!!!) there’s a fascinating exhibition – Test és lélek a Nagy Háborúban (Body and Soul in the Great War) – that looks at preaching in the field, military hospitals, and medical practice in WWI. Powerful stuff.

The city can hold its own foodwise, too. Fejesvölgy Étterem – a traditional Hungarian restaurant – did everything right, from the service and the food to the drinks and the price. They were turning people away.  The more contemporary Elefánt Étterem was just as good in its own right. Apparently, a third one to watch (recommended by the lovelies) is Chianti but we had to leave that till next time.

And there will be a next time. The locals are friendly, quick to help, and very tolerant of mangled Hungarian pronunciation. Just over 90 minutes from Budapest by train, Veszprém is a gem of a city that is worth considering next time you want a change of scenery.

First published in the Budapest Times 22 July 2016

I’ve gotten used to being shortchanged when it comes to entertainment. Gone, I thought, were the days when the fortune I shelled out for a concert ticket would guarantee me at least 90 minutes, if not two hours, of solid entertainment. A bit of banter was something I’d come to expect, that somewhat old-fashioned concept of rapport.

The more gigs I went to, the more disillusioned I became. Sinéad O’Connor’s 60 minutes of sunglasses in Budapest last year left me cold. Stacey Kent’s more recent concert (same city, different venue) would have been more suited to a jazz club than a full-on arena. I think I slept through parts of it. But then along comes Jamie Cullum and gives me reason to hope.

IMG_6890 (800x541)I bought his Twentysomething CD back in 2003 and was impressed. I’d not heard much of him since but the name stuck in my head. That’s not to say though that he wasn’t busy doing all that had to be done to earn himself the accolade of ‘most successful UK jazz artist ever’ with sales of 10 million albums under his belt.

IMG_6809 (800x600)It’s hard to label him – jazz, pop, rock, he does it all. He collaborated with Clint Eastwood on the music for Gran Torino. He was the first DJ to play Gregory Porter (who was on stage in Veszprém two days before Jaime) on radio. His radio show on BBC2 has been licensed all over the world.

For a young lad who used to play weddings and bar mitzvahs in the UK (he put himself through college on the proceeds), he’s come a long way. Perhaps it was at these gigs that he learned how to engage his audience. And that, ladies and gentlemen, he does brilliantly.

IMG_6898 (800x627)I watched in last night in Veszprém and for nearly two hours marvelled at the dexterity with which he put us, the audience, through our paces. The guy is a genius. It was his first time playing in Hungary and apparently the gig was streaming live on the Net. He was posing for photos with young ones at the edge of the stage. He came down into the audience and sang to and danced with fans. He conducted us thousands to the point where he had us alternately whispering and screaming as he played along.

There was a young lad beside us who had waited 10 years to see Jamie perform live and he wasn’t disappointed. His appeal spans generations and without exception, everyone from 12 to 70 was on their feet by the end.

IMG_6863 (800x600)The gig wasn’t  a sell-ouIMG_6879 (600x800) (2)t. It was to have played in the Castle but we were rained out and moved inside to the Aréna where both side sections were curtained off. The night before, Lisa Stansfield had packed the house. She, too, had been moved, but because she’d sold out the Castle and ticket demand was huge. But I can testify, first-hand, that those there last night got the far better deal.

Some might remember his tour in 2003 when Amy Winehouse opened for him IMG_6917 (800x600)each night (or for when he opened for Billy Joel at Madison Square Garden). Others might remember his first TV appearance on the Parkinson Show. More again might know him for his recording of the lead single from the film Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason. [And I quite fancied a likeness between himself and Mark Darcy (aka Colin Firth). In fact, I was quite taken with how he could easily be the cheeky younger brother.]

He’s also sung Frankie the Frog in the movie Meet The Robinsons and is responsible for the sound track for Grace is Gone (remember, the John Cusack film?). And of course, there’s his collaboration with Clint Eastwood on Gran Torino – a classic.

He has duetted with Stevie Wonder, performed a private gig for the Queen, and headlined at Glastonbury. There’s little the man hasn’t done, and few awards, if any, that he hasn’t won. He’s also a keen photographer and a magazine publisher. [Note to self: get a copy of The 88 – billed as a heavyweight journal that is  ‘an occasional magazine for the adventurous thinker’.]

IMG_6944 (800x600)Throughout the gig, he moved from one number to the next with an alacrity born of practice, segueing through genres with jazz, pop, hip-hop, electronic, and rap. I recognised some of the standards with his version of Singing in the Rain the best I’ve ever heard, and all the more endearing because we’d been rained out and he’d just moved the party.

And for those still wondering what he was all about, he introduced When I get famous, a poignant song about a short lad of slight frame who couldn’t get any girl to go out with him back when he was in school. Not that, he said, it was in any way autobiographical [he’s now married to the gorgeous Sophie Dahl].

I loved loved loved his song on These are the days and wondered why I thought he was strictly a covers guy. I’ve spent years thinking he was a cover guy. How wrong was I. Jamie, I’m sorry, but anyone how knows me knows that I’m musically illiterate.IMG_6936 (800x600)

As he played High and dry, you could have heard a feather fall. It was this he conducted the audience in – it had to be one of the best finales I’ve seen ever. When he left the stage with his band, the audience kept up the humming … and humming… and humming. And then he came back, on his own, and sang for us as if each of us was alone with him the room. Just him and his piano and the wonderful theme tune from Gran Torino.  When he was done, he got up, thanked us get again for a great night, said his goodbyes, and left.

And the crowd stood silently and respected this. No more calls for encores. No more entreaties to come back. Just a quiet acceptance that each of us had been privy to something very special. And for that I’m truly grateful.

No matter your taste in music, if you get the chance to see Jamie Cullum live, take it.

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I was born asking questions. The whys of life fascinate me: I like to know why people do what they do, why they make the choices they make, why they live where they live. My litany of questions has been likened to the relentless nature of the Spanish inquisition (without the evil intent), particularly when I have a glass of wine in hand. I’m fortunate that those who have been on the receiving end rarely if ever take exception to my curiosity. And so the questions continue.

Photo credit: Kaci Simon

Photo credit: Kaci Simon

My latest victim is Hungarian born Martón Béres-Deák. Born in the town of Gyöngyös, some 80km east of Budapest, he spent 9 years in the UK, mainly in London. He speaks his English with a British accent but strangely when he sings an Irish ballad, he sings with an Irish accent. He’s even mastered the soft ‘t’ that is so uniquely Irish.

Béres-Deák was 15 when he first picked up a guitar. And he’s been playing since. At 18, he studied classical music at Bartók Béla Music School, where he also learnt the piano and music theory. Given all that, my burning question was why Irish music? What’s the fascination?

With an Irish landlord in Crawley, UK, Béres-Deák was introduced to the craic from the outset. He played in a band doing popular Irish songs at various Irish festivals in the city. Returning to Budapest, he soon spotted that the Irish pubs in the city liked their Irish music, too. He now plays regular gigs at Jack Doyle’s and at Becketts and loves it.

For Béres-Deák, it’s all about the passion. The songs he sings, most often requested by locals and tourists alike, are full of soul. He likes that the punters get caught up in the music, too. They sing along, eyes half-shut, some inner chord striking as he plays and sings with them. He describes Irish music as a direct extension of the Irish soul.

It takes time to learn new songs, to grasp the lyrics, to mimic the speech, but he says it’s worth it for the emotional response he gets. Some songs take weeks or months to sink in and for him to truly represent their message or vibe. Some songs don’t match his style at all. Some songs he loves the audience won’t like and others that he loathes, the audience will love. Yes, Chesterton had it right when he said of the Irish that our wars are merry and our songs are sad.   The songs Béres-Deák sings are very personal. The stories are easy for him to relate to, as a Hungarian for whom the fight for freedom and the story of migration has also played a huge role in his life.

Earlier this summer, a business man from Boston who heard Béres-Deák play at a gig in Budapest, invited him to play at a local festival in Ballinskelligs. He’s a little nervous about going to Ireland and playing in front of a home crowd but he has what it takes – that cheeky mix of irreverence and passion that is a winning combination. He never repeats the same set of songs. He brings his full repertoire of some 250 songs with him and then picks and chooses to suit his audience. And he makes it all look so easy.

Béres-Deák has worked many jobs – he’s laboured on the building sites, spent time as a lumberjack’s assistant, worked as a cook, drove a van, supervised a warehouse, worked in a call centre. He’s tried hard to not make music his life, but at this he has failed miserably. And rather than fight it, for the moment he’s embracing it.

Check him out at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pNxkwOi76vw. Catch him live at Becketts  tonight, Friday, 8th July, and at Jack Doyle’s Irish Pub and Restaurant tommorrow, Saturday night, 9th July. And if you’d like to book him for a gig, contact him at martoon@hotmail.co.uk

First published in the Budapest Times 8 July 2016

My head is easily turned. Some would say I’m fickle. Mapping the direction of my conversation would be a challenge. I have a tendency to rhapsodise. On the few occasions I’m overcome with enthusiasm for something, I border on the evangelical. And when I discover something, or somewhere, or someone I really, really like, the world and its mother has to know.

I was introduced to Sándor Szogedi on a recent trip to Noszvaj. I’d gone to mass (wrong service, wrong church, different experience) while the others went to see the castle and the cave dwellings. They were to come back and meet me in an hour when I’d done praying for all our sins. Instead, I got a phone call. They’d found their church – the Gazsi Pince.

&&8It wasn’t by accident. My friend had sampled a red wine from the Gazsi cellar some time ago and knew it was resident in Noszvaj. They went to check it out and when they found it closed, she called the number on the gate. The ever-amenable Szogedi agreed to open up and let them taste his wine.  And it was there I eventually found them, lauding the merits of a rosé that apparently was the best anyone had ever tasted.

While I’m prone to exaggeration myself, I don’t find it becoming in others. I was just a tad sceptical and more than a little contrary that sunny Sunday. So I decided to ignore their urgings and go with one of the cellar’s 12 wines – a dry white 2015 Leányka. And I was impressed. Very impressed. Bottled from grapes from vines planted back in 1982, it’s certainly a ‘young lady’ of note.

I tried another, a 2014 Királyleányka. And the descriptive that came to mind was intriguing. I’m convinced that wines have personalities. A lot of them are simply boring. If they could speak, their conversations would be dull and uninteresting. I could relate to the Királyleányka – it caught me unawares. I liked it, too. A lot.

The others had moved on to the reds so I was catching up. Curiosity got the better of me and I gave in. I tried the 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon rosé. Since discovering the virtues of rosé back in Wimbledon, UK, some dozen years ago, I have only once tasted anything that came close. I don’t have the vini-vocabulary to describe it so I’ll revert to the prosaic – it was bloody brilliant.

I’m not one for red wine. I had an unfortunate encounter with a bottle of port when living in Anchorage, Alaska, many moons ago, an incident that left me scarred for life. Even sitting next to an open bag of wine gums turns my stomach. But I was on a mission. And I tried both the dry Cabernet Sauvignon and the sweetish Turán. And if the rosé and the white ran out, I could drink either.

Szogedi, too, is a rather remarkable man. In a country where customer service is still in its infancy, he has nailed it. Eschewing the usual retail channels, Gazsi wines are sold directly to the consumer. Relationships are established. The family is extended. With just two hectares under vine, they buy in grapes from other growers and then work their magic. Their run is small – perhaps 6-8000 bottles a year plus the barrels dispensed in 2L and 5L plastic bottles. Their wine tastings can be coupled with a four-course meal in the cellar, something that’s now officially on my list of things to do. And with delivery runs to Budapest three times a week, putting wine with a personality on your table has never been easier. Introducing others to the delight that is Gazsi is a bonus. Check them out at www.gazsipince.hu

First published in the Budapest Times 17 June 2016

 

We had a few hours to kill before our Glamping experience was due to start so we hit upon the neighbouring village of Noszvaj. We had plans to see the castle and the caves – caves in which people live today – and then to wander around the wine cellars. We stopped to ask an old lady which path to take to get to the castle and she invited us to church. She said the castle would still be there in an hour but the church service would be over.

IMG_4828 (800x600)IMG_4823 (800x600)Between the four of us, I was the only one to profess an ounce of religion. And it was a Sunday. And I was conscious of my duties. So I left the others to their own devices and headed into mass. Or so I thought.

I sat in the back of this 750-year-0ld church as hymnals were thrust upon me by a series of ladies of indeterminate age. After the fourth had made her offer, the rest sent up a loud chorus: she’s a foreigner. Everyone in the church that day knew I wasn’t Hungarian. And I knew that I was in the wrong church when a woman – and a fashionably dressed woman at that – appeared on the altar.

The second clue I had was when after the first hymn, by request from the lady of the cloth, everyone turned to greet their neighbour, shaking hands and nodding and having a quick chat. Wrong order here – we [RCs] don’t get around to that till nearly the end. And then it’s not so much of a chat but more a quick ‘peace be with you’.

A couple of hymns were a little on the pop-side of the bible. It was hilarious to see some of the headscarfed oldies pew-dancing to the beat.

The sermon took about 20 minutes and from what I gathered, it was mainly about fathers needing to be more than football coaches [this particular Sunday being the Day of Children in Hungary]. She delivered it with aplomb. I didn’t need to understand the words to get the essence. This woman had what so many priests in my church lack – she had presence. She had her audience in the palm of her hand. She had rhythm. She had tone. She had vocal variety in spades. And she had presence – I know I said that already, but it’s worth repeating.

There was no order that I could identify. There was no communion. I looked down once and when I looked up again, the altar was bare. She’d gone. It was over.

IMG_4833 (800x600) (2)IMG_4826 (800x600)IMG_4837 (800x600)I waited to take some photos and as I was leaving fell into conversation with one of the local women whose English was as good as my Hungarian. We got by. It transpired that I’d been to a Reformation church. And they only have communion a few times a year on special occasions. They were highly amused that I’d thought I was going to mass and even more amused when I told them that I was in Noszvaj to taste the wine.

But we parted on good terms.

The village itself is lovely. The old sod roofs are reminiscent of an Ireland of yore. I was quite taken with the solar panelled roofs, too. A nice mix of eco-traditional.  I was sorry to have missed the cave dwellings but I did catch up with the wine. More of that on June 17th, though. Now it’s enough to say that IMG_4838 (800x600)IMG_4848 (800x600)the village is home to the famous Thummerer Winery and a couple of others of note, but Thummerer is the one that gets the  most attention. Personally, I’m not a huge fan. But then again, all I know is what I like. And I liked the painted postboxes. And the feel of the village. And the quaint houses that dated back to the 1800s. I was completely entranced by what looked very like a map of pre-Triannon Hungary marked out in chalk or white stone on a nearby hill. Fascinating. Worth a visit.

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It had been a while since I’d been to Eger. I spent a weekend there once, the memory of which is tainted with just a smidgen of disappointment. I’d been hearing about the Valley of Beautiful Women for an age and was a little put out to see that there was only one woman. I have a vague recollection of being disappointed in the wine and can only recall there being one main square. But then time has a weird way of rewriting history and melding memories into mush.

IMG_4819 (600x800)I don’t ever remember seeing this – and can’t for the life of me decide if it was purposely built or whether an existing church has been spaced-aged. Saw it from the bus on the way into town. We’d been up since the crack of dawn to catch the 7.15 down, a near two-hour journey that was far more pleasant than the return one later that evening.

On our way back from glamping, we got off at the castle, just to have a look-see. The town looks very different from on high.

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IMG_4953 (800x600)There’s  a fair few churches and it would take more than the few hours we had to see them all. But we did venture into a couple. Candles to light, prayers to say, and all that. I don’t ever remember seeing the minaret before though – nor the Turkish teahouse in the Yurt!

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But then, Hungary is nothing if not surprising. And fair play to those with a little imagination who find a gap in the market and go for it. I had been wondering what the little blue-and-white Turkish-looking symbols were all over town – perhaps they mark a trail to this very tent.

It was particularly hot. The heat seemed to amplify the colouring with the yellows looking even more yellow than usual.

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I wrote before about how the shop signs made me question observation and the part taking photos can play in heightening our awareness. I found some old favourites and some new ones.

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IMG_4926 (800x685)IMG_4944 (600x800)While wandering the town I do what I always do – ask myself if I could live there. Perhaps not surprisingly, the answer was a qualified no. If I had to, for some reason, I’m sure I’d be fine. But it’s not somewhere I’d choose to live. There’s something a little odd about the place that I can’t quite put my finger on. I get the feeling that it has succumbed to the tourist forint and that life is now about capitalising on its offer. Nothing wrong with that at all. We live in a capitalist world. But something is missing… That said, any place that has seen the virtues of pairing wine and chocolate can’t be all bad.

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Summer is coming. Short of moving to the Southern Hemisphere, there’s little I can do to avoid it. I’m not a hot weather person. There’s a limit to the clothes I can take off, but there’s no limit to what I can put on. Give me subzero temperatures over 40 degrees any day.

The occasional hot day we’ve had so far has attuned my delicate sense of smell to the onslaught of odours to come. I have already packed my perfumed cotton handkerchief in its sealed plastic bag in preparation for the day I get trapped on the tram under a malodorous armpit. It will come. It always comes. Like death and taxes, it is unavoidable.

But this year, I have a Plan B. I’m quite taken with the idea that a lot of families living in Budapest have a holiday cottage somewhere outside. I, too, plan on escaping the city on its hottest days and taking myself off to the countryside. I’ve written before about the calming delights of the forest in Gödöllő and expect to visit regularly this summer. I’m also keen to go back to Ráckeve and perhaps explore a little more of Csepel Island. And then, of course, there’s Szentendre.

Ask almost any tourist who has been to Budapest what they did while they were in the city, and chances are you’ll get the triad: walked the Castle district, went to the baths, and did the ruin pubs on Kazinczy utca. Those who were here a little longer than a two-day weekend might also add that they managed to fit in a day-trip to the riverside town of Szentendre. And while it’s lovely in its own way, I can’t say that it’s ever really done much for me. But Szentendre Island? Now, that’s a completely different story.

IMG_4776 (800x600)This 56 km2 island in the middle of the Danube, not far from Budapest, is an oasis of lush foliage and green fields, banked by clear, flowing water. Connected to the mainland by a single bridge, it is also accessible using the ferry service from Tahitótfalu, Vác, or Dunakeszi.

The island’s history can be traced as far back as 896 AD. It seems to always have been an agricultural area, supplying the nearby cities of Buda and Pest with produce. As we drove around, I was reminded of the green fields of Ireland and had little trouble imagining rural village life, Magyar-style.

IMG_4777 (800x600)IMG_4787 (600x800)From north to south lie the villages of Kisoroszi, Tahitótfalu, Pócsmegyer, Surány, Horány, and Szigetmonostor. Pócsmegyer is home to the Berczelly Mansion, a one-storey Baroque style mansion built by the Esterházy family in the late seventeen hundreds. The springs of Szigetmonostor supply a lot of Budapest’s potable water. But it was Surány we wanted to see, and in particular, the beach.

The tiny village of Surány, with its gorgeous little church and outdoor pews doesn’t boast much in the way of city-style entertainment. There’s a pub one side and a büfé on the other. Because the pub doesn’t do food, they don’t mind you bringing in a takeaway. How civilised is that?

IMG_4782 (800x600)It does have a couple of beaches, lovely sandy stretches that run alongside the Danube. The water looked cool, clean, and inviting, so different to the same river that runs through Budapest. Some old-style employee summer complexes stand witness to IMG_4778 (800x600)the days of yore and indeed many of the houses are still original … from the small, two-roomed stone cottages to the more palatial riverside family homes. And, of course, if things ever get too quiet, there’s always Szentendre.

By car is simplest, but it’s doable by public transport, too, making it a perfect bolthole for those hot summer days when the air in Budapest stands still and the madding crowd gets too much to handle.

First published in the Budapest Times 20 May 2016

‘Ouch’, she cried.
‘What’s happened?’, I asked the group in general, as a rather large hairy man was blocking my view.
‘He’s just dropped his penis on her head’, someone said.
‘And it was nearly the end of me,’ she moaned.

IMG_3204 (800x600)Not exactly your usual Sunday afternoon pub conversation but then again, it wasn’t just any Sunday afternoon. We were in Mohács for the annual Busójárás festival, one acknowledged by UNESCO as an intangible cultural heritage. It’s been the locals’ way of saying ‘goodbye winter’ and ‘hello spring’ since the eighteenth century. Revellers parade through the town wearing hideous busós (masks), sporting wooden penises in all shapes and sizes. It’s not for the fainthearted.

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IMG_3164 (800x600)Some 80 000 people had rocked up for Sunday’s festivities and the place was jammed. Add that to the fact that Wales and Ireland were playing their first Six Nations match of the year and finding free wifi to stream the game was a priority. We got the kick-off time wrong but did manage to catch the second half on instant feed and over the radio in bar of the Szent Janós hotel. The 16-16 draw was a nice bonus given that we had both countries represented around the table.

With the wine flowing and palinka making miraculous apparitions, it didn’t take long to get into the belly of it all.

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IMG_3189 (800x600)IMG_3193 (800x600)Our bus of 23 split up into more manageable smaller groups when we parked up after a and wandered around the town. I wanted to see the coffin being thrown into the river at 4.30 and while the crowd standing on the banks was 3 and 4 deep in places, I did IMG_3196 (800x600)manage to get a view of sorts. I’d missed this when I was there in 2013 and have to admit to the whole thing being a little anti-climactic. I expected a little more fanfare. Still, the crowd seemed to be into it all so it was probably just me. And I was pleased to see the tip to neighbouring Croatia as one side of the coffin read Poklade (Croatian for Winter).

It was all little surreal, with the Busó popping up
everywhere. And as the day wore on, they became even more amorous. And daring. As I said, not for the IMG_3200 (800x600)fainthearted. The town was bopping with folks dancers, folk singers, traditional bands, musicians of all sorts. And even the spectators did their part turning out in national costumes and weird and wonderful fancy dress.

IMG_3267 (800x600)P1020750 (800x600)I met a lot of interesting people this week – from all over the world. At a workshop in Malta we shared interesting facts about our respective countries and learned to appreciate our differences.

I’m grateful for  the never-ending list of things to do in Hungary, for the diversity it serves up alongside the wealth of culture it offers. And I’m grateful, too, for the company I keep. The sing-song on the bus on the way home did Ireland proud. What’s not to love about life?

PS – Thanks to the irrepressible Mr Fulop for organising it all. And for counting so well.

 

 

 

I’m not a fan of having my photo taken. I will avoid it when possible and while lately it hasn’t been as arduous as in the past, I’d still prefer not to be captured digitally or on celluloid or in any way at all.

I was in Hyderabad – a city that ranks No. 2 in places in the world to visit, if you believe the billboard in the arrivals hall at the airport. Am not sure about No. 2, but it has certainly made it to the top of my list of favourite cities in India. Yes, it’s a short list, I know, but it did bump Chennai from the No. 1 spot.

IMG_1707 (800x600)The city, in particularly the Old City, is predominantly Muslim and seeing so many women blacked out took a little getting used to. My ignorance of world demographics reared its head: for me India was Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism, with a little Baha’i thrown in for good measure. Islam just didn’t figure. I need to go back to school.  

IMG_1711 (600x800)Anyway, at its heart is the Charminar (Four Pillars), built at the close of the sixteenth century by Quli Qutb Shah when he moved the state capital to Hyderabad. Its four, 4-storey minarets are nearly 50 m high. Had I done my homework, the whole Islam thing mightn’t have come as such a surprise as the four minarets are said to represent the first four Khalifas of Islam.

After I’d figured out how to get in (special entrance and special price (about €1.40 or $1.50) for foreigners, of which I was the only one), I was just aimlessly wandering around the ground floor. A guide approached me and tried to sell his services. He started to barter down his price to the point where it was nearly nothing, but I still wasn’t buying. I knew I couldn’t absorb any more facts. So I asked him how his tour would change my life for the better… we had quite the exchange. All the while, a group of 5 (2 women, 2 girls, and a young boy) were looking on, giggling away. I didn’t have a clue what was going on. I eventually freed myself of yer man and started to take some photos. The older of the crew came over and said something in rapid-fire Indian English. I caught the word ‘photo’ and assumed she was offering to take a photo of me, an offer I quickly declined.  But then it became clear – she wanted a photo with me!

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The rest of the crew surrounded me and dragged my arms around them. We all smiled and chatted as I was shot to death. All lovely, if somewhat bemusing.

I noticed a couple of men hovering and thought – no, no more guides. But they, too, wanted me to pose for a photo. This time with their mother and their grandmother, the latter a tiny woman whom I dwarfed even more. I was shot some more. It was like my own public photo shoot.  I saw a queue of sorts forming and mild panic set in. Krishna (my driver) had told me I had 30 minutes and I still hadn’t started climbing the 149 steps to the top.

Thankfully, he had felt a little concerned about letting me off on my own and had parked the car and come to find me. My knight in a white Toyota. My 7.5 minutes of fame were explained. It wasn’t because I looked like anyone famous, it was because people in the city are fascinated with foreigners. A first for me.

IMG_1701 (800x600)IMG_1705 (800x600)But back to the Minar. There’s supposed to be an underground tunnel that links Charminar to Golconda Fort: an escape route for the royal family should they be in need of one. I don’t think anyone’s ever found it, though. To get to the top, I climbed the 149 steps, steps that are about twice as deep as a usual set of stairs. Quite the workout. And very, very narrow. It would play havoc with your claustrophobia.

At the very very top, apparently, there is a mosque, with its 45 prayer alcoves and a great open floor in the middle. And had I not decided to do without a guide, I might have realised this. I didn’t. Anyway, I didn’t even try to go in because I didn’t know it was there, but I didn’t see anyone else climbing any higher either. As close to the top as I could get was a fabulous space, with  alcoves, and an amazing ornate ceiling. Stunning. And built hundreds of years ago. Mind boggling.

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IMG_1690 (800x600)IMG_1706 (800x588)The views out over the city are spectacular. The fruit markets, Laad Bazaar, the pearl market, a hive of activity. I felt a little like Gulliver in Lilliput.

Back on the ground, Krishna was a little taken aback at how nonchalantly I walked through the traffic, even stopping in the middle of the street to take a photo. But I’d had training. Many years ago, on my first visit to Bangalore, a local colleague, Lakshminarayana, had made me cross Mahatma Gandhi Street 11 times. It took me that long to get used to the traffic and the chaos and the madness and to realise that although it might seem random, everyone knows what they’re doing. 

IMG_1692 (800x600)I felt right at home in Hyderabad, even though I was turned away from the massive Mosque next door, Mecca Masjid (the oldest in the city). [Sixteen people were killed when it was bombed back in 2007.] I was refused entry because I was not in traditional Indian dress. Their loss, I said, knowing that my photo would soon pass though the hands of hundreds of people as my new friends took their token foreigner home.

charminarI will have to go back though, because I didn’t get to see the Charminar at night, in all its glory. And that’s something I’d like very much to see for myself. With that in mind, I have sowed the seed of a possible flat swop with an Indian colleague who spent time in Budapest. And you just never know what might come of it. I could spend time in Hyderabad. A lot of time.