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Market mecca

Barcelona is a veritable mecca for shoppers. The city is big on leather, big on recycling, and big on style. It more than makes up for the usual high-street cohort of Zara, H&M, Mango, and the like, with a host of small boutique designers that smack of individuality.

But the markets are where it’s at. La Boqueria (Rambla 91) is probably the best known of what’s on offer but if you’ve been spoiled by produce markets in Budapest as I’ve been, it’s just another day at the stalls. Nope. It was the fleas I was after. Other people’s junk. Other people’s treasures. And the place to go is what’s billed as one of Europe’s biggest flea markets – Mercat dels Entants (Carrer de los Castillejos 158).

While there’s the usual dose of tat – both Chinese and Turkish – there is plenty to look at. Morning auctions bring collectors from all over searching for a bargain. Had I had checked luggage, I could have done serious damage. It’s a brilliant place to spend a few hours.

Over on Placa Real, we stumbled across a craft market where everything was made from recycled stuff – bags, jewellery, clothes – everything there had once been something else. The last time I was in the city, many many years ago, we stayed in a boarding house on the Real. Each night, we’d nightcap in what was then the tiny Glacier bar before heading to the Pipa Club. The Glacier has now expanded and the Pipa Club, with its collection of Sherlock Holmes’s pipes, has a sign outside letting the world know it’s there. Back in the day, it was only for those who didn’t need to be told. Street entertainment in the city is good – particularly the acrobats. A glass of cava to sip on, some sunshine to bake in, and an acrobatic display to keep you entertained. Not a bad way to pass an hour.

And if it’s art you’re looking for, there’s no shortage of art markets either. The one we found was the Mercadillo de la Plaça de Sant Josep Oriol i del Pi. What was meant to be a quick buzz around to see if anything leapt off the easel screaming my name, turned into a buy. An original watercolour – boats on a beach in black and white by  Jordi Serrat Jurado. Having walls has unleashed a madness in me. I have bookshelves of unread books and now I am accumulating tubes of unframed paintings.

That said, it was a lovely way to spend the day.

 

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Now, this is what you call a super market

What to do on holiday when it’s lashing out of the high heavens and your hotel room is way too small for comfort? Some would head to a museum or an art gallery. Others might go shopping. Me? I’d get lost in the nearest big supermarket.

I find other country’s supermarkets fascinating. From the near-empty shelves of Bourgas, Bulgaria, to the bountiful ones in Carrara, Italy, I have whiled away many a wet hour walking the aisles. I’d take a good supermarket over a designer clothes shop any day.

x1Sadly there are far more of the latter than the former, especially in Hungary.  I was a fan of Waitrose when I lived in the UK and am partial to SuperValue in Ireland. But choice in Budapest is limited.

I prefer Auchan over Tesco. I’m not a great lover of CBA. And simply walking into Culinaris is enough to bring out parsimonious me in hives. So stumbling across the upmarket Príma in Kolosy tér on my trip across the river last weekend was a bonus.

X2They have real beef, beef that has been aged for 28 days. Granted it has come all the way from Brazil and Uruguay and the USA, but it’s real beef. And they have real lamb. And yes, it’s more expensive than the lamb in my local halal butcher, but it, too, looks lovely.

And there’s a fresh fish counter, wide aisles and shelves stocked with myriad herb-infused olive oils, designer milks and all sorts of other treasures that had me oohing and aahing for the bones of an hour.

The large helping of foreign foods is nicely balanced by cheese, fish and meat from domestic producers. The baked goods are a step above most offers in the city and the chemical-free bio fruit and veg would warm the cockles of any eco heart.

x3It’s right next door to the Buda Gourmet restaurant. I knew there was some link between the two but I wasn’t quite sure what it was exactly so I checked the website. Together they are called Buda Gourmet Bistro & Market by Príma. And lo and behold, it’s a market designed with the foreign resident in mind.

When recruiting staff, those who speak English and German have an advantage. The idea is that budding gourmets can eat at the restaurant and then shop for the ingredients of their favourite dishes in the market. How novel is that?

Eschewing the a la carte menu, we’d booked in for Saturday brunch, us and a host of designer families: young-ish, trendy parents, with even younger, trendier kids, all very well behaved. The restaurant itself is very stylish and designed to within an inch of its sleek life.

The all-you-can-eat buffet runs to HUF 3990 but you can pay a supplement of HUF 1270 to avail of the grill.  And from that grill you can have lamb cutlets, rib-eye steak, crocodile and kangaroo … and that’s what I can remember.

If you’re a coeliac with a lactose intolerance and a preference for paleo dishes, you won’t be disappointed. But if you’re a vegetarian, you might struggle to find something interesting in the buffet. The food is very tasty and there’s plenty of variety. Not as much perhaps as what the downtown upmarket Sunday buffets run to, but every bit as good.

The drinks menu is extensive with a nice selection of whisk(e)y including Miyagikyo,  a 15-year-old Japanese single malt that will set you back about HUF 12,000 a shot. I was a tad disappointed in the limited gin offer, but that said, it does stock one of the most un-gin-like gins on the market – the French G Vine Floraison, so I wasn’t complaining.

The wine list acquits itself well and the service is friendly and attentive. Sure what more could you ask for?

If you’re in the neighbourhood, both are worth a visit.

First published in the Budapest Tim
es
1 July 2016

 

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Chacha!

The Ancient Greeks had their agora – a central gathering place that was ‘the center of athletic, artistic, spiritual and political life of the city’. Kutaisi, like many Eastern European cities, has its market place – the Green Market. I like my markets. I was particularly impressed with the souks in Morocco earlier this year. And I’ve been impressed in other cities, too. But the market in Kutaisi is more than a place where people come to sell their wares – it’s an institution. And at first it can be just a tad intimidating. 

They say that the Romans never invaded Ireland because of the women. Word has it that when they pulled alongside the west coast of Ireland, they saw the women harvesting seaweed. So fierce did they look that the Italian boys figured the men must be horrors indeed. And they kept on sailing.  Well, the women of Kutaisi might well be Irish.

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IMG_5226 (800x600)The odd one was happy enough to relieve the monotony by posing for a photo but she was a rare woman. The produce ws plentiful. Each had their calling be it flour, grains, cheese, meat, or booze. Some mixed and matched and offered just about everything. This lovely lady held us captive for half an hour as she explained in her best Georgian how she made her own wine and chacha – a popular grape vodka. We, of course, being the polite travellers that we are, had to sample everything. [Memories of a pig killing in Bekescsaba came flooding back, but this time I showed some restraint.]

Georgian wine – the homemade stuff at any rate – is a dry sort of sweet and is definitely a grower. The makers are so proud of their recipes which have been passed down through generations that a friendly competition ensues when more than one is in a room at the same time. I hadn’t realised that Georgia lays claim to the first vineyards – a stellar claim indeed. Anyway, yer woman’s English was non-existent. All we knew in Georgian was Didi madloba (thank you very much). By the end of the hour we spent in the market, we had the pronunciation down pat, much to the amusement of those we encountered.
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TheIMG_5223 (800x600) meat, the cIMG_5231 (600x800)heese, the vegetables … all were quite something and enough for me to be seriously considering a move.  Not now. But sometime maybe. It’s on my list of possible addresses. Who wouldn’t like to shop here ever day? The vegetables looked as if they came out of the ground rather than from the back of a truck. And the variety of produce on sale was quite something.

We were definitely the subject of many a stare – and once we had had a chat or three, the curiosity tempered IMG_5230 (800x600)from somewhat intimidating to the mild innocence that comes when hawkers spot a potential score. I only had one item on my shopping list – Georgian tea. That said, had I not been restricted to cabin baggage and by import laws, I could have packed a suitcase or three with the delicacies on offer.  Of course, there is the usual display of tat that you find in markets everywhere, the provenance of which is either China or Turkey, depending on which part of the world you’re in. But the tat here was of a higher quality – if that is possible.

In our travels, I saw a number of stalls selling what looked like multi-coloured candles hanging from their wicks. It wasn’t until later that I realised what I’d seen were Churchkhela.

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Churchkhela (Georgian:  ჩურჩხელა) is a traditional sausage-shaped candy made by repeatedly dipping a long string of nuts in tatara – a mixture of flour, sugar and Badagi (concentrated fresh grape juice). Georgians usually make Churchkhela in the Autumn when grapes and nuts are harvested. Churchkhela can also be made with dried fruit (such as peach, apple or plum) and pumpkin seeds.

Something I think I’d like to try at home. And here’s the recipe. They’re quite delicious.

Having had our fill of smells and savours, we wandered out through the maze of stalls onto the street, turned a corner, and stopped dead in our tracks. The back wall of the Green Market is nothing short of jawdroppingly spectacular.

IMG_5232 (800x600)IMG_5236 (600x800)I can’t find any information on it and our intrepid fountain of information from the tourist office failed to mention it in his brief introduction to the city. It doesn’t rank on the list of places to go. Up close, it seems like it could be a graphic depiction of the history of the country.  There were guns and canons and bullets and families and saints and musicians and all sorts. War and peace reigned side by side. Music, art, literature all had a place. It is truly something. In years to come it might well be to budding artists what the likes of the Eiffel Tower and the Colosseum are to sketchers today.

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2015 Grateful 4

Some memories, no matter how deep they are buried, refuse to stay buried. Way back when, on my first (and I think my only) package sun holiday, anklets were all the rage. Everyone was wearing them. Never really one for staying on trend, for some reason I was determined to get in on this one. The sun was probably getting to me. I spent ages with one trader from Algiers, who promised that he had the most extensive range of anklets on the street. His blanket was covered with them. All sorts. All colours. All sizes. And I tried them all. And none of them would fit. Of course, the more embarrassed I got, the more anxious he became to make a sale. Eventually, he sat back on his haunches, and gave his diagnosis: I had fat ankles. And then he gave his prognosis: It was very unlikely that I would ever find an anklet to fit me; the only possible treatment was to buy a necklace and loop it around twice. I ran.

Since then, whenever I think of reincarnation, I thinking of coming back with ankles. Real ankles. And if memory serves me correctly, in my very brief appearance in SC’s Budapest Short on Leprechauns, when asked what my one wish would be – I said ‘ankles’. Fixated I am.

Wandering around Laad Bazaar in Hyderabad is quite the experience. [Laad means lacquer, by the way.] It’s colourful, loud, and full of bangles.  I was there during the day but having watched the video of a night visit, I know I definitely have to go back to Hyderabad and see the Old City by night. There are more than 40 shops on the one street, some of which have been in families for generations. It’s an old market, a very old one. It’s where Bollywood comes to buy its bangles. Mind you, I wouldn’t have recognised a Bollywood star if they’d come up to me and introduced themselves by name. But I have it on good authority that they’re regular visitors to the bazaar.

IMG_1716 (800x600)Tourists were few and far between. I had an address for one store that specialised in glass bangles, but Krishna was with me and I was feeling the pressure NOT to wander. He’s a lovely lad, but a tad impatient. We tried one stop but they had no glass bangles at all. They were quite insistent though and I had to start the trying on process. Surprise, surprise. They couldn’t find a bangle to fit me. Son called over Dad and Dad in turn called Grandad and the three of them stood discussing the challenge. Other customers were earwigging and throwing surreptitious glances my way as Dad decided that a plastic bag would do the trick. He stuck my hand into the bag while Son tried to slip on the bangle over it. One pulling, the other pushing, me grimacing in pain. Okay, okay, I have wide hands. Not fat ones, or big ones, just wide ones. Wide knuckles. They eventually  gave up and sent us to another shop.

IMG_1717 (600x800)There, they didn’t try the plastic bag trick but they did try everything else, including hand lotion. They seemed mesmerised. Wide hands are obviously not the norm in Hyderabad. By this stage, I was a little tired of being the attraction, so I didn’t hang around. But the search will be resumed next time I’m in town.

IMG_1664 (800x600)Hyderabad is also famous for its pearls, with an entire street – Patther Gatti – lined with shops selling all sorts of pearls in all sorts of settings. And yes, I know it’s miles from the sea. I did ask the question. But apparently, back in the day when the Nizam-ul-Mulk was in charge (about 200 years from the eighteenth century to the mid-twentieth century), they brought pearls from the Arabian Gulf to Hyderabad. Today, in the village of Chandanpet just outside the city, almost everyone is a pearl driller – a craft that requires a certain skill. Some of the pearls that I saw were tiny.  And when the first set I fancied was in danger of choking me, Aman assured me that he would extend it a couple of inches – no problem. Before I bought (and not for me as I know it’s bad luck to buy pearls for yourself) I had him take a cigarette lighter to random pearls to be sure they were real. It’s not that I doubted him – he was lovely – it was more that I would hate to think I’d be taken for a ride. [I’m well aware of my gullibility – every saleman’s dream I am – and the self-beratement that comes with being had does my head in. I really should do my homework.]

All I actually wanted to buy on this trip, though, was a kurti – a tunic top worn over leggings that are scrunched up at the ankles. Indian women look so pretty, so vibrant, so colourful. And I figured I could cut a dash in one over the festive season. Strangely though, it’s only men serving in the government-sanctioned tourist shops, and lovely though they are, they just don’t get it.

‘Yes, ma’am, we have all sizes.’ And  indeed they did. And everything in my size fit to perfection, except the bust. And it’s not as if the poor lad didn’t try. He must have pulled out ten different styles in fifty different colours. And none worked. I remembered this from last time, too.

So, what have I learned? From my research, I have concluded that the average Indian woman has petite hands, a slender neck, and a small chest. And I just don’t fit the mould. For me, it’ll have to be custom-made. But then I had more time and even after going to the the tailor and specifying exactly what I wanted in terms of neckline and roominess, I was flattened and my decolletage censored.

It’s been a mad week  full of  sensory overload and people, lots and lots and lots of people. I’m sick of hearing myself talk. I’ve been burning the candle at both ends (what’s new?) trying to fit in as much as possible and still work and I’m mentally and physically exhausted. But it’s a good kind of exhaustion. A healthy kind. One that comes from an onslaught of new and a deluge of different, one  that has given me a new perspective.

One of the greatest things about travel, particularly to places that are so different from my norm, is that it gives me a chance to miss things, to miss people, to miss places that I might sometimes take for granted. And for that opportunity, coming as it does in the delight that is India, I’m truly grateful.

So, where to next?

 

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Smile and say ‘Charminar’

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.

 

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Before the madding crowd

One of the drawbacks to living in a city as beautiful as Budapest is that everyone wants to visit. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve no objection to people visiting me. I love showing them around. And if they come a second or even a third, fourth or fifth time, I’m happy to house them, feed them, give them keys and a map, and send them on their way as there are only so many times I can do the sights.

It’s not visitors I object to, it’s tourists. Visitors visit people. Tourists visit the city. And of course, individual tourists are fine. They’re welcome, even. It’s the collective thousands, nay hundreds of thousands, who come each year, the tourist body, per se, that’s what gets me.

Sunday morning dawned bright and early. It was a lovely, clear, balmy October day made for blue skies and sunshine. The heat of the summer had abated and the cold of the winter had yet to set in. It was a lovely time for visiting the city and yet the streets were empty.

We were on our way to mass at Szent Rókus kápolna (St Roch chapel) on Gyulai Pál utca, over near Uránia. From what I gather (but I’m open to correction here, as always) it was built around 1711 and had a hermitage and a workhouse built beside it. Perhaps the old workhouse is the present-day hospital?  No matter. The place has history.

It’s a small chapel, a lovely change from the bigger churches in the city. It’s quite personal and very much a community. There were only about 20 of us there for mass (the first of four said every Sunday) and it didn’t feel at all empty.

Afterwards, we headed over to District VII for breakfast, via Kazinczy utca and passing by Szimpla Kert, one of the city’s oldest and best-established ruin pubs. By night it’s a teeming mass of people of all ages and ethnicities. On a Sunday morning it’s home to a farmers market.

IMG_2368 (800x600)And the earlier you get there, the better. I was after two things: sprouts from the Sprout Man and tepertő (goose crackling) from anyone who had it. Purchases made, we enjoyed a quick espresso before following our appetites to Cirkusz Café, Dob utca 25.

egsIts USP is that it roasts its own coffee and does what has to be the best Eggs Benedict I’ve had in years. (Its Eggs Florentine was beaten into second place this summer by a café in Oxford.)  Seats are generously spaced with tables seating fours and sixes, so if there are just two of you, you don’t feel on top of anyone.

Service is friendly and unobtrusive and the food is excellent. It’s a hidden gem in a line of other hostelries on one of the city’s busiest tourist streets. Thankfully tourists don’t get up that early on a Sunday morning so the place was quiet yet busy enough to be lively.

A walk back to the metro at Déak tér took us through Gozsdu udvar and the Sunday morning bazaar where, had we been in the market, we could have bought anything from a WWII gas mask to the latest in handmade jewelry and leather bags. But the place was beginning to fill up. The tourists were awake and ready to take over the city. We’d caught the last of the quiet time by around 11.30am.

It was lovely wandering the city’s streets without having to dodge the selfie-stick holders. The quiet lent an aura of wonder to it all. We had time and space to look up as well as look around. While tourists are a necessary (and always welcome) part of life in Hungary, I’m glad they sleep late on a Sunday.

First publised in the Budapest Times 9 October 2015

 

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Headscarves and padded bras

If this trip to Romania taught me anything, it’s the need for patience. We turfed up at the guesthouse to find it empty. Not a sinner. No one around. We walked about, hollered our howayas, and then tried to explain our quandary to a toddler who didn’t speak either Hungarian or English. Some time later, a woman appeared, very surprised to see us. A phone call was made and it turned out that yes… we had booked in. Oops. That’s Romania. You take it as it comes. There’s little point in fussing or getting upset. It makes no difference.

IMG_0717 (800x600)IMG_0720 (800x600)Răchiţele (Havasrekettye), our home for the night, is the birthplace of the Romanian Prime Minister Emil Boc. I didn’t know this then, and even if I had, it wouldn’t have enticed me into the village. And no, I didn’t see the waterfall, the village’s one main sight to be seen and the one thing that everyone asked us if we’d seen when we mentioned we’d stayed the night there. I was tired. For some reason my sleep was restless and my dreams zapped me. I was sleeping but waking up even more tired than when I went to bed. So I took the afternoon off and worked, giving thanks, yet again, for having a job that only needs an Internet connection. With regard to seeing the sights, I contented myself looking at the colourful houses across the road. IMG_0715 (800x600)IMG_0716 (800x600) (2)Later that evening, after discovering the joys of a local blueberry liqueur (a bottle of which I managed persuade the woman of the house to part with so that I could take back to Budapest), we popped next door to the pub. Women don’t really go to pubs in this part of the world but there was only one chap in there and he didn’t look much like he cared. I might well have been in Ireland, in an ould shebeen. Where else could you by a shot of brandy or a pair and a rubber gloves at the same time.

The plans the next day were fluid. We’d decided to get the bus to Heudin (Bánffyhunyad) at 10am and catch the market. The lady of the house called the bus driver and told him that we’d be waiting. There are no bus stops. You’re very much dependent on local knowledge. So there we were on the side of the road, waiting for a bus that never came. It would come at 11, they said. So we decided to chance walking and hitching – again. And this time, it didn’t work. No one stopped. Perhaps we looked a little too strange. Perhaps we were a little too far from anywhere. Perhaps we looked like trouble. So we tossed a coin and doubled back and waited. And the bus came: a blue transit van that had a couple of benches in the back. The neighbour across the road was waiting to pick up some motor oil the bus was delivering (it doubles as a courier service) and he assured us that yes, it would take us to where we were going. Along the way we picked up more people, stopping randomly wherever someone was waiting. All pre-arranged it would seem. I didn’t read this in the guidebook (that said though, I didn’t read a guidebook at all).

IMG_0734 (800x600)IMG_0733 (600x800)Back in Heudin (Bánffyhunyad) the best of the market was over. The ladies with their embroidery had left already and what was left … well, think fruit and veg and clothes and everything you could need from a fishing rod to a padded bra. Clothes on the second-hand stalls were going for 25c a piece. What appealed to me most were the people – little old head-scarfed dears in from the surrounding villages selling their veg and their cheeses. Tough women. Women who have had a tough lives. Women who know what hard work is. I was suitably awed to be in the presence of the sisters. And wished I had some way to talk to them. They seemed like a feisty bunch.

IMG_0739 (800x600)IMG_0730 (600x800)Those who were selling sold. Those who were buying bought. A steady stream of conversation. Perhaps it was the only time that week that they would have something to chat about. Market day seemed to be at the epicentre life, a day out for many. I wondered if there was an age when you got to wear the headscarf – did you have to be 50 or 60 or older? And when I voiced this thought I was told that these women would have worn them all their lives. They even have a Sunday scarf, one they use for going to church, and in one of villages in the area, a woman hand paints them. Now there’s a job. A craft, like so many others, that is in danger of dying out.

IMG_0748 (600x800)IMG_0746 (600x800)We stopped at the local church to have a look-see (and the regulatory three wishes) and once again, there are few words that can properly convey how stunning these places are. The ceiling was hand painted, what looked like ceramic tiles of some sort. And the decoration this time wasn’t made of wheat but of flowers, cleverly crafted to look like a  bell. The church doors were open and it was empty. It looked like we had just missed a service. Someone had left their laptop open  on a table in plain sight. I can’t think of anyplace else I
IMG_0752 (600x800)know where this might happen.

Plaques and pictures had embroidered frames, this time in black and white. So simple and yet so stunning. A traditional take on what the Jazz Bar in Cluj had done by framing their flat screen with a large, old, ornate wooden frame. I don’t think I could ever tire of these churches and well impressed so far, I had no idea that the best was yet to come.  Huedin is on a direct train line to Budapest – there’s no excuse for me not to go back.

 

 

 

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Into the unknown on wings of imagination

You would think that after seven years in a sometimes volatile but never boring relationship, I would have glimpsed, even if not fully understood, most facets of Budapest life. Seven years is long enough to get to know a city, its museums, its theatres, its bars and restaurants, its cafés, its libraries. Of course, some of the latter three often change their names and offers; that’s to be expected. But when it comes to the more established establishments, even if I’ve not set foot in every one of them, their names should register if mentioned.

I thought I was particularly up to date on my markets, having been to all I’d heard of at least once, if not repeatedly. So it was with some surprise that I learned of one I had missed: Bakancsos Utcai piac in the XVIIth district.

I have been to Örs vezér tere, the terminus of the No. 2 metro line, on numerous occasions. I’ve been mildly curious about the buses that leave from there, too, but I’ve never had reason to get on one. Any place past Örs vezér was a mystery, a part of the city that I’d never seen. Last weekend though, I ventured forth. The instructions were clear: Örs Vezér térről 67-es busz Szürkebegy utcai megálló (uszoda utáni 2. megálló) – get the 67 bus and get off two stops after the swimming pool.

The 25-minute trip threw up some wonderful place names that both simplified and confused. Uszoda (swimming pool) said it all, but what of 513 utca? What’s that about? What’s so significant about the number 513? I checked on Google maps and see there is a large square area in the XVIIth where all the streets are numbered in the 500s (from 500 to 545) and at its centre sits 525 tér. There’s a near-perfect symmetry in the layout of the streets which suggests that it’s a planned neighbourhood and if viewed from the air, I imagine it would look quite impressive. I now want to go see for myself.

The market itself is set in what for all the world looks like a piece of wasteland in the middle of a residential neighbourhood. We didn’t have to worry about finding our way: it seemed like everyone on the bus was heading in the same direction. Inside a walled area, hundreds of vendors had laid blankets on the ground or set up tables and were selling their wares.

Clothes, shoes, china, cutlery, books, records, photographs, pictures, vases, statues, lightbulbs – anything and everything you might ever want or need was there for the finding. And, unlike the city-centre markets such as Petőfi Csarnok or the better known suburban market Esceri piac, both of which are common tourist haunts, the prices in Bakancsos were reasonable. Very reasonable.

Flea markets like this are wonderful places to take a trip into a parallel universe. I lost some time looking at framed portraits, so engaged was I in imagining the lives of those in the pictures. Leafing through autograph books I was struck again by the stories that lay behind each and every item on sale. If only they could talk. It’s a mecca for anyone with an imagination. The old adage that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure is so true. People were buying the most unlikely things: why would you buy a wedding photo of total strangers? Trying to figure out why others had bought what they had was nearly as much fun as sifting through the remnants of bygone eras in search of something I didn’t know that I couldn’t live without myself. Open Friday to Sunday 6am-1pm, it’s a grand way to pass a Saturday morning.

First published in the Budapest Times 10 October 2014

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Bare bums and books

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I’ve a thing for markets. I can spend hours sifting through other people’s junk. The Grand Bazaar in Istanbul was high on my list of places to see. What I hadn’t bargained for though, was the matryoshka effect. Just like the Russian nesting dolls, the Grand Bazaar opened on to other, much smaller, delights.

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I wandered in through Gate 7 and came out through Gate 14. I have no idea how many gates there are but it is, apparently, the biggest indoor market in the world. And it’s impressive, with its 56 interconnecting vaulted passages, housing over 4000 shops.There’s even a website advising you how to prepare for the experience (which, of course, I found after I’d been).

It’s a warren of small boutiques and stalls selling everything imaginable and more. I had a few moments of blind panic when I lost my way and couldn’t remember from which direction I’d come, so that was a tad distracting. But for the most part, while the glitz was something to be seen, on my market meter it ranked a 6. It takes more than bare bums to impress me.

The joy came later, when wandering through the maze of streets surrounding the bazaar, I ventured through an archway, went around a corner, and came across the Sahaflar Çarşısı, a second-hand book bazaar.

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I let out an audible gasp of awe when I happened upon this quiet courtyard lined with booksellers, a welcome respite from the heaving crowds two streets over. Its only drawback (from a selfish, mono-linguist tourist’s point of view) was that there was nothing in English, other than English language primers. [Mind you, I did find an English-language bookshop later and man were those books expensive – my quest for translated contemporary Turkish fiction will have to wait.]

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And then, through another archway, I found my Mecca – a flea market. Give me blankets on the ground over stalls and boutiques any day. What was interesting was  that all the sellers were men. Not a woman in sight, other than those buying. In the calm light of a waning afternoon sun, these men just hung around chatting. Some deals were struck but for the most part, men on their hunkers passed the time of day, smoking and drinking coffee. Despite the cacophony of conversation, it was a tranquil place, a social place, one where I’d imagine y0u’d come in search of solutions to all sorts. Were I living locally, I’d be a regular.

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Shopping for a new perspective

It doesn’t cost anything to be nice to people. Smiles are cheap. Manners are the same price. Yes, we all have our bad days when wallowing in self-pity or bemoaning the state of our world is all we can bring ourselves to do. That’s a given. But for the most part, it is nicer to be nice, trite and all as it sounds.

Mind you, a happy, clappy state of relentless good humour can be a tad annoying. I am uncomfortable with unwavering positive outlooks –  I immediately think inhuman. The negativity in us all has to come out somewhere.

Budapestans are often referred to as a dour people. Personally, I don’t find that to be true. Yes, some of those in public service jobs might benefit from a dose of cheeriness, but compared to their Bratislavan neighbours, they’re positively exuberant.

I got into conversation with a woman in Skopje who’d been to Budapest and was commenting favourably on the city’s collective personality wishing that people in Skopje could be as pleasant. I countered with my experience in Skopje where everyone, without exception, was helpful, pleasant, and good-humoured (especially those without a word of English whose efforts to understand and be understood were inspiring). I can’t think of a time or place where I’ve felt so at ease.

IMG_1926 (800x600)IMG_1927 (600x800)Walking through the Old Bazaar area one morning, I felt as if I’d stepped into another world. Cobble-stones and dilapidated houses lined the narrow streets. Sellers plied their trade. Café tables were full of men in conversation, the women notable by their absence. The jewellers on Gold Street were doing a hefty trade while the Albanian presence was obvious in the colourful and somewhat garish wedding dresses on display. The food market was one of IMG_1942 (800x600)the largest I’ve ever seen. It seemed to IMG_1937 (800x600)go on for miles, selling stuff I’d never seen before alongside the usual staples.

There was a buzz about the place that was timeless. It could have been any century, any decade.  People seemed lost in their own individual worldsIMG_1930 (800x600) as life proceeded at its own pace, unfettered by modernity or progress. Built in fifteenth century, the bezisten (covered market) hasn’t changed since its renovation in 1899.

Everyone had a wave or a smile or a comment or even all three. There was no pressure to purchase, none of that hawker harassment that takes from the whole market experience. No one tried to drag me into their shop and sell me something. I didn’t have to dodge eye contact or ignore those sitting outside taking tea. It was all rather lovely. Movie-like. You know, when the expat has been living there so long and speaks the language and they go to the market and everyone knows them as they’re the only foreigner in town? It was that sort of feeling, only I didn’t speak the language and I wasn’t the only foreigner in town.

IMG_1949 (800x600)IMG_1948 (800x600)Barbers, cobblers, and tailors still work their trades. And in the newer section, the usual ubiquitous tat has taken root. I am sure that if you were in the know and spoke the language, cheap cigarettes wouldn’t be all that was on offer. It seemed IMG_1950 (800x600)like a place where you could buy anything from a  tractor to a teaspoon.

I loved it. Стара Чаршија is the biggest bazaar in the Balkans this side of Istanbul. Dating back to the twelfth century, it’s home to IMG_1921 (600x800)more than 30 mosques and the Ottoman influence is visible. I spent a lovely few hours wandering the streets, nosing around places, people-watching. It reminded me a little of Sarajevo – just a little.

It’s a place for talkers. Idle conversations sprang up randomly. Walking up ul. Sevastopolska, I met Tair. He pointed to his shop and said I was welcome to look inside. I told him I was at the mercy of the airlines pitiful baggage allowance. He pointed to a small restaurant – his sister’s. Food …that I could do. He came with me. He introduced me to his sister and I ordered some lentil soup.He sat. And we chatted. He’d spent 15 years in Turkey and had many Irish friends – he’d even sold his leather jackets at house parties in Kilkenny.  People came and went to our table, asking him this or that and all the time he kept an eye on his shop. He told me of his time in the army, when he was conscripted. He spoke of life in Turkey, in Macedonia. He talked a lot about life – and getting old – getting to that point when the freedom of being on your own starts to pall. He spoke of wanting a family. Of wanting to settle. He’d come back to Skopje last year and set up shop. He was doing well. Twice a week he’d take his motorbike and ride in the hills. Business had started to pick up so I left him to it, promising to drop by again  to take tea with him before I left to cross to river back into Disneyland.

In the hours that I was gone, he’d sold quite a bit. He reckoned I’d brought the luck of the Irish with me. As we sat in his shop later that afternoon, I was struck  by how much we miss in not taking the time to chat, in not trusting a little more. As we swapped our stories and shared our perspectives on relationships, on marriage, on parenting, on politics, on tolerance, on life in general, sipping hot Turkish tea amidst the leather jackets in his shop, some of my faith in human nature was restored. Tair’s is an uncomplicated life that I found myself envying. He lives it based on openness and trust and honesty. No agenda. No judgment. I learned a lot that day – and was reminded of what Scottish poet George MacDonald had to say:  ‘To be trusted is a greater compliment than being loved.’