There are myriad blogs out there on what to do in Piran. There are lists upon lists of where to eat and where to stay. And these usually aren’t my things. But for Piran, I’m making an exception.

Read more

The vague recollection of walking the harbour at Piran didn’t start niggling until Day 2 in this fabulous Slovenian town. Walking from the outer beach back to town, I began to feel as if I’d been there before. I tweeted a few photos and immediately had a response from a Serbian friend reminding me of the fish dinner we’d had there some 10 years ago. I checked my blog and yes… it was true. Read more

When we travel on a fixed route from A to B, we often miss so much in between. We’re so focused on getting there on time to check in, eat dinner, or do whatever we plan to do that we don’t stop along the way. Of course, if we’re planners, we do the research and plan extra stops into our itinerary. And if we’re wingers, we might just build in the time anyway and take it as it comes. We follow the signs.

We were heading to the Kreinbacher Estate in Somlóhegy for dinner and a wine-tasting. Check-in was a 3 pm. The journey would take less than an hour. So we left at 10 that morning, just to make sure we’d have time to stop if anything caught our fancy along the way. A sign pointing to an old cemetery or a ruined castle or a roadside market – anything.

Driving out of Zalaszántó, a village that was once home to the fab Florridora’s Pantry, an English tearoom in the middle of the Hungarian countryside, we remarked on how we’d never before driven through it. We’d come for tea more than once, but had never ventured beyond the corner. I’d a vague notion that there was some big Buddha somewhere in the ‘hood but I’d no idea where or what to expect. And then we saw the sign – Stupa.

I hung a left and drove until the paved road ended. Then we hit the dirt roads with their potholes and weed-ridden centre lines. Poor old Ime took a battering. At one turn, some people had parked and were walking uphill. The sign said another kilometre. I kept driving. Finally, we could go no further. About ten cars were parked and a handful of people were milling around the stand selling all things Tibetan. Wind chimes, incense sticks, prayer flags, posters of sayings from the Dalai Lama. The bells sent out their messages in the breeze and the waft of incense made an already humid day slightly headier. We walked further, passing a meditation centre on our left and more stalls on the right. I was excited about seeing Buddha. But I’d gotten it wrong.

We had seen our fair share of stupas in Thailand but somehow my brain had difficulty transporting one to Hungary. I was missing the connection. But there it was, in all its glory – the largest stupa in Europe, built in the village of Zalaszántó by a chap from South Korea. Could it get any stranger?

Zalaszántói Sztupa stupa in Zalaszántó Hungary

Zalaszántói Sztupa stands 30 metres high and 24 metres wide. From its perch, some 316 metres high on a hill above Lake Balaton, it has a beautiful view. It’s home to some tiny pieces of Buddha’s remains that made their way from Tibet via India and Switzerland only to end up encased in Zalaszántói Sztupa, reportedly making it the only place in Europe with a Buddhist relic and a holy place of pilgrimage. The idea belongs to Bop Jon (Jin Sui Lí), a Buddhist monk from South Korea who was part of the Buddhist Peace Foundation in Hungary. Back in 1990, he was on the lookout for a country in the midst of a regime change where he planned to build a stupa to represent peace, happiness, and enlightenment. But he also needed somewhere where the locals would be amenable to accepting of the Buddhist tradition. somewhere construction would be facilitated rather than hampered. Mayor Zoltán Huszti Ferecz issued the invitation and the rest, as they say, is history. 

history of Zalaszántói Sztupa stupa in Zalaszántó Hungary

Using donations from South Korea, Hungary, and Austria (some 40 million HUF, equivalent to about 630 million today), the stupa was erected between March and September of 1992.  And on 17 June 1993, the 14th Dalai Lama, Gyo Tendzin came to Hungary to dedicate it. By 2007, the weather had taken its toll; the stupa had to be refurbished and rededicated. Today, it’s a gleaming beacon of peace and serenity in the middle of a forested hill – the aerial view must be spectacular.

While I’m well-versed in Roman Catholic rituals and have a reasonable grasp of Protestant ones, I’m a loss as to what to do with Buddhism. We sat at the base, waiting for someone to stride confidently forth and begin. We weren’t looking for tourists, like ourselves… we wanted someone who really knew what they were doing. We didn’t have to wait long to find someone we could mimic.

Prayer wheels Zalaszántói Sztupa stupa in Zalaszántó Hungary

We walked clockwise around the lower Pradakshina path and then the middle and then the top, where we paused and paid homage to the golden statue inside the glass casing. The top pradakshina was lined with 50 prayer wheels that we brushed as we passed. We did this three times, sending our prayers out into the world. The first time I counted – I had to. The second time, I tried to think of a Buddhist or Hare Krishna chant but failed miserably. The third time I prayed. It was lovely.

On the way out, we passed by the meditation centre again, not realising it was a temple, too. Next time. And there’ll be a next time. Of course, we stopped to buy some wind chimes and prayer bells – I love the sounds they make. There’s a lot to be said for the simplicity of Buddhism and more to be said about following the signs.

Zalaszántói Sztupa stupa in Zalaszántó Hungary

 

 

Nagykanizsa (know to locals as simply Kanizsa) is a town in southwestern Hungary. It gets its name from the Slavic Kynsa, which translates as ‘belonging to a prince’. And once you get by the blocks of panel apartments and the myriad chain stores and supermarkets and make your way to the centre to Erzsébet tér (Elizabeth Square), it’s not difficult to let your imagination take over. Read more

Hungarian wine is as good as it gets. The number of small organic producers is growing. The big guys continue to make the technical stuff and tourists in their droves descend on the major wine regions of Eger, Villány, and Tokaj. But there are plenty of other places, off the well-worn tourist track, smaller wine regions like Somló – which is actually the smallest of the 22 regions in the country – where producers like Kreinbacher work their magic.

Read more

I read this morning that on this day, back in 1386 , St John of Capistrano, leader of the 1456 Battle of Belgrade, was born. I was immediately transported to Belgrade, one of my favourite European cities. Read more

Zagreb hasn’t featured on my list of cities to return to. I remember being singularly unimpressed with it, the last time I was there …. for a Leonard Cohen gig back in 2010. Is it that long ago?  Granted, few cities are at their best on a Sunday evening if you’re not staying in the happening part of town. Read more

A mate of mine, on a short-term contract in Zagreb, visited us in the village last weekend.  I’d checked the trains and the direct one from Zagreb to Budapest passes through the next village. It should have been easy. It wasn’t. There was weekend trackwork and in the bus-train interchanges, something happened. They either got on the wrong train or didn’t realise the direct train wasn’t direct any more. Whatever.

I got a phone call to say they were in Izlaz, Croatia, when they should have been in Nagykanizsa, Hungary. The only way over the border by train was to go the whole way back to Zagreb and start again. Madness. So, we got in the car and drove to pick them up. They said they’d get the train to Virovitica or Kloštar Podravski so we checked the border crossings and decided to cross at Gola.

The drive was new to us and new territory is always good. We passed through Berzence, which has to be the Christmas tree capital of Hungary. Fields of them stood waiting to be chopped down and delivered to the cities and towns of Hungary in time for the big day. I wondered briefly how that had started. Had one chap tried his luck and when it caught on, everyone else baled in? The village dates back to the 1300s and if we do go back to get a tree, we’ll no doubt check out the Baroque Festetics House, which has to be related to the palace in Keszthely. There’s also a Roman Catholic Baroque church dating back to the 1700s, an eighteenth-century inn, and the ruins of Berzence castle. But we were on a mission.

When we got the border, there was one car ahead of us. We waited a couple of minutes to be called forward and then surrendered our passport cards and car registration papers. And then we sat. And sat. And sat. I noticed the fence – the famous fence along the 348 km (216 mi)  border between Hungary and Croatia that has divided the two countries since 17 October 2015. I’d not seen it before. And I was surprised at my reaction.

I’ve touted Hungary as a great place to live because of the easy access to the rest of Europe. In my mind’s eye, I had visions of a United States of Europe where you can nip from Hungary to Slovenia as easily as you can move from California to Arizona. My mental map didn’t have walls or fences. Okay, so there were checkpoints crossing over into Serbia and Ukraine, but that was only to be expected as neither one is in the EU, but Croatia? The Schengen schilling was slow to drop. Of course. Croatia is in the EU but not in the Schengen zone. Hence the delay.

We sat some more and finally yer man came out. The name on the car registration matched the name on the passport card and the photo on the passport card was of me. And I had already said that I owned the car. He asked me where I lived. I gave him the Budapest address that was on the car registration. But that wasn’t enough. I had to prove that I lived there. I dug in my wallet for my address. He checked it carefully. I got a distinct feeling that he wanted to create another obstacle but couldn’t come up with one. WTF! Since when has Croatia had a problem with Ireland? Has there been a spate of middle-aged Irish women nicking 15-year-old Hungarian cars and smuggling them across the border? Eventually, he gave me back my stuff and walked off. The barrier lifted and I drove through. In the rearview mirror, I noticed the couple behind me. He asked for their ID, had a quick chat, and then waved them through. They were in a Honda.

I couldn’t decide what I was feeling. Was it relief at being allowed out, or relief at being allowed in? At this stage, my mate, trying to be helpful, had gotten another train a few miles closer to the border – but to another border crossing. We finally connected in Kopřivnice, home to the Tatra truck company. Back in the days of Communism, the company payroll was 16 000 strong, about 1000 of which were Vietnamese. Today it’s about 3700. Once owned by a consortium which included Ronald Adams, the American who made his fortune selling graduation rings [FT has an interesting article on the takeover], it’s now owned by a Czech armourer [the things I learn when I blog!].

Anyway, we decided to go back into Hungary through Letenye, hoping that this busy crossing would be deserted on a Saturday afternoon. And it was. The Croatians barely glanced at our papers, delighted no doubt to see us leave. And the Hungarians didn’t seem that annoyed about letting us back in. Maybe three in a car is the magic number.

The experience set me wondering about borders and visas and how they affect my travel, however subconsciously. I would love to go to Russia but as the visa would cost more than the flight, I’m dithering. I’m very fond of India but again, as the visa can add significantly to the cost, I prefer to go there on someone else’s dime and tag on some personal days afterwards. Qatar recently added some 80 countries to its visa-free program but that in and of itself wouldn’t entice me back. Turkey’s convoluted system did my head in and would make me think twice about visiting Istanbul again. And while I, as an EU citizen, have the freedom to travel within its borders, Brexit might change all that for my UK friends, and apparently cost them more – a €7 charge to visit EU countries.  I wonder if I’ll be able to cross the Irish border and go to Belfast without having to show my passport? Amazing, really, to think that I never really appreciated freedom of movement until I began to see it dwindle.

[Note: Fence pictured is the one dividing Serbia and Hungary – I figured I’d had enough attention in Croatia – and they look the same.]

Warsaw markets

I like a good market. I’m particularly partial to flea markets. I like seeing what other people no longer value or perhaps value too much. I’ve often fantasised about building a complete backstory for myself based on framed photos, discarded family albums, and books with handwritten dedications. I’ve fancied that such places must be where the spy people go to find the props to create new lives. I could (and do) spend hours sifting through other people’s stuff. I’ve got an eye for what I want so usually it’s enough to scan a table and see what draws me back for a second look. I like the foodie markets, too, if for no other reason than to see the strange produce on offer. Fruit and veg that I’ve never seen or tasted before. At one of the many Warsaw markets, Hala Mirowska, I saw tiers of eggs marked with various prices – am not sure whether they were from different fowl or just different sizes. It was too wet to venture closer; the battle of the brollies made the whole experience quite an effort. But had I done my homework before I went, I’d have looked for the bullet holes that still remain in the northern wall, lasting reminders of German executions during WWII. The older section is at odds with the massive supermarket that can be viewed from above. It’s like looking down into another world.

Warsaw markets Hala Mirowska

Warsaw markets Hala Mirowska

Warsaw markets Hala Mirowska

Warsaw markets are plentiful. Just behind, Hala Gwardii [plac Żelaznej Bramy 1, Warsaw] concentrates on food-food with some 25 different vendors selling their wares and plenty of table space for punters to sit and eat. Warsaw likes its communal seating. I’m not sure if the table tennis tables and the boxing ring are permanent fixtures, but they added a lightness to the place that in some odd way helped dispel the everpresent sense of man’s inhumanity to man that I feel when I visit the city. We were wandering what was once the heart of the Jewish ghetto, and the horrors of the Holocaust were never far from my mind. That Poland, as a country, didn’t exist at one point in time is mind-boggling. The scars of the 1944 Uprising still remain. But in using old brick rubble to rebuild in the 1950s, the city still retains that oldie feel.

Warsaw Market  Hala Gwardii

Warsaw Market  Hala Gwardii

We happened upon another market – ZOO Market Bazar [Al. Solidarności 55, 03-402 Warszawa, Poland] In its second season, this is the brainchild of Agata and Olivia who rent the plot of wasteland from the city and on the second weekend of every month, rent out stalls to vendors selling vintage stuff and refashioned fashion. They open the place every weekend, regardless, as a laid-back outdoor bar and open-air cinema. Till midnight, the place is an alternative venue for those who like to spend their money on old stuff made new. In the past couple of months, all major shopping centres in the city close on the middle Sundays in the month only opening on the first and last. The women want to encourage people to buy old rather than new and also to encourage artisans in their craft. It’s a marriage made in ethical consumer heaven. A great spot for a beer and a browse.

Warsaw markets ZOO Market Bazar

Warsaw markets ZOO Market Bazar

Some more markets in Warsaw.

 

 

I’m getting increasingly sick of aeroplane travel. Eight of the last ten flights I’ve taken have been at least an hour late in arriving. And what with the ongoing pilot disputes with RyanAir and air traffic controllers on the outs elsewhere, booking a flight and printing a boarding card no longer ensure an on-schedule departure. So we decided to go from Budapest to Warsaw by train.

Booking 8 days ahead, we got some sort of deal – and opted for first class. Two return tickets, first class, came to €126 – €58 out, €68 back. and with as much luggage as we could handle. To get there on WizzAir, without luggage, would have cost the same and more, per person. Okay so the plane door to door might have taken less than half the time (if everything was on schedule) and resulted in airport transfer costs – but the train was so much more comfortable.

There are three departures daily from Budapest (Nyugati). The 7.41 requires a change and gets into Warsaw at the same time as the 8.41, which is direct. Both arrive at 18.56 (and they did – bang on). The 7.41 connects with the 8.41 at Breclav, which explains the same arrival. The overnight takes longer – leaving at 20.15 and getting in at 9.36 the next morning. I could do the 10 hours 15 minutes but the 13 hours and 21 minutes made me baulk.

We had the carriage practically to ourselves until we crossed over into Poland. I found this strange as when we’d booked the tickets, there were only 6 seats left. But when the world and her mother came aboard, I understood. It was standing room only in the second-class carriages and the entire first class was full. The dining car, too, was fully seated. My one and only complaint (I loved the complimentary water and free newspaper when we went through Slovakia) was that the air con was up so high it was bloody freezing while the rest of the train was baking. But apart from this imbalance, it was a very pleasant trip. Plugs for the laptop, table to work on, room to stretch out and sleep. What more could a body ask for.

It’s been years since I’ve been to Warsaw. But I remember being very  impressed with the city, favouring it in my mind over Kraków. I’ve yet to explore but it seems to be hopping. Last night, the street cafés in our neighbourhood were spilling over onto the sidewalks and the mood bordered on ecstatic. I wonder what’s in the Warsavian water.

Hala Koszyki warsaw

Taking a local’s advice, we headed for Hala Koszyki – a food hall over on  Koszykowa, No. 61. It is what the food hall on Hold Utca behind the American Embassy in Budapest could be, if it had communal seating and opened every night. It was great. You order from whichever place you want, take your buzzer, get your drink, find a table, and then wait.

Halla Koszyki Warsaw

We went for Cuban – jerk chicken and mango chicken with cassava hash browns. Delicious. We could have had Mexican, seafood, Thai, French, Italian, Polish – and lots more we didn’t get around to checking out. It’s a particularly good venue if you have a crowd of disparate eaters who can’t agree on where to go. In fact, when we’d been dithering earlier about a neighbourhood Georgian place (which was too hot to sit in and eat) I overheard three people arguing with the guy saying, in exasperation – Look, we can’t agree on what to eat, so we’ll go to Koszyki. What a great marketing strapline.

Hala Koszyki Warsaw

And tucked in between the resturants is a wine shop, a butchers, a bakery, a bookshop, a kitchen shop, and much more. The shops close at 6 but the restaurants and bars stay open till midnight.

If you like what you’ve read, sign up to get more updates on Warsaw direct to your inbox. www.anyexcusetotravel.com