I’ve noticed that the meaner the world gets, the nicer I want to be. The crazier world politics becomes, the more simplicity I crave. And as we teeter on the brink of insanity, I’m spending more and more time trying not to lose sight of what really matters.

Ever wonder where your money goes when you donate to a charity, or sponsor someone to run a 10k, or buy a raffle ticket? All too often we never see the effect. We have vague notions, perhaps, of the difference our help may have made. Then again, perhaps we don’t care. Perhaps the giving is something we do automatically without wondering what next. Perhaps in our own little universe it’s not about ego or power or public recognition. Perhaps we don’t care about the applause or the back slaps or the congratulatory adulation. Perhaps we simply give to share and share to give.

Yet there’s a whole debate to be had about where to give, to whom to give, and why to give. I know I’ve had more than few conversations about it. I have an innate distrust of big charities and the money they spend on plush headquarters and fancy cars for their CEOs – but as was pointed out to me recently, if they want to attract big money, they need to have a big presence. On an intellectual level, I can see the validity of this. On an emotional level, I still have problems.

I prefer to support people I know involved in projects that are making a difference. Okay, so maybe these projects won’t bring about world peace, or make any sort of difference on a grand scale, but what they have in common is that they make a difference to someone.

My friend Zsuzsa B has adopted the village of Zabar in Eastern Hungary. At Christmas, I had a blast shopping for a 5-year-old girl, making her wish list a reality. Others did likewise and the kids in the village experienced the magic of discovering that wishes can come true. But it didn’t stop there.

These kids had never been to the theatre or to the zoo or eaten in a restaurant. Until recently, their universe was limited to their village and nearby towns. The capital, Budapest, the seat of their parliament, the home of their government, was some place they’d heard about but never seen. For them to have some hope of a better tomorrow, they need to see what’s out there, to broaden their horizons. And for this to happen, they need help.

A bus was hired. Arrangements were made. And 45 children from this remote part of the country embarked on a trip of a lifetime that included pantomime, elephants, and ice-cream. What an eye-opener it was for them. For those who helped make it happen, little else is needed by way of validation that to see the smiles on their faces. This video captures it all.

It is small initiatives like this one that make such a huge difference in the lives of these kids. And in these troubled times, we need to remind ourselves of what’s important and not lose sight of the necessity of doing our bit to make our world a better place.

It’s hard to go back, they say. Things never quite live up to how you remember them. If they were great, they’ll be not so great. If the place was gorgeous, it’ll be a little less gorgeous. If your time there was miserable, it’ll be even more miserable.

Sure, I’ve gone to places and loved them and then gone back years later to find it had all changed, or it was smaller, grubbier, not nearly as nice as I remembered it. It could well have been, of course, that the company was different, or my mood had changed, and the place was still exactly the same. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it; I simply move on.

That said, when I go back somewhere and it’s even better than I remember, that’s bonus. Something to be grateful for.

A number of years and a lifetime ago, I was driving down by the Balaton on a Sunday morning and happened across an outdoor market in the village of Káptalantóti called Liliomkert. I remember being impressed at the time and thought that if I were down that way again, I’d definitely drop by.

Fast forward three years or so, and the same market came up in conversation with a friend whose mum lives in the village. Down by the Kis Balaton, this time, on a Sunday, we decided to take as spin over and check it out. It was a bank holiday weekend, so all the vendor stalls were taken. The place was heaving. The weather was cooperating and the sun was shining. It was a glorious day.

I came, I saw, and I spent my money. Three times, I got so carried away with being able to hold a semblance of a conversation in Hungarian, that I walked away without paying. Three times they called be back, looking for money. But such is life in the countryside that no one was all that bothered. They’d have caught up with me sooner or later.

I’m going through a phase at the minute, a painted phase. I’m quite taken with painted wood, something I wouldn’t have thanked you for eight years ago when I was doing up the flat in Budapest.  I was quite chuffed with this bench, a market find for the upstairs balcony. Come summer, I plan on taking my morning coffee sitting on it while looking down over the fields to the lake I know is behind the trees. Right now, it’s too bloody cold, although with the leaves gone, we can actually see the lake.

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And ever since I came across the idea of vertical bookshelves on a trip to San Francisco, I can’t get enough plant stands. As this is the only part of the house that has a wealth vibe (in Feng Shui terms), I needed something that would take a lot of very specific colours and a money plant to channel that chi. And ya gotta love the whole shabby chic thing… a great excuse not to sand and paint – just leave it. Peeling paint is all the rage.

Not quite sure what to do with a large white wall in a big kitchen space that will be redone (once the plant stand in the wealth corner starts producing money), I had a root through some carpets and kilims. And I scored this pair – hand-woven in Poland, with the original labels still attached. It adds some warmth, reduces the echo, and ties in nicely with some pieces I want to work on.

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There are few things I like more than a good market. Add the open air, some sunshine, and a little patience, and I am guaranteed a great day out. There was food, music, wine, coffee, pálinka, and lots to laugh about. Lots to be thankful for there. A must, if you’re in the neighbourhood.

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One of the many joys of living in Budapest is the huge amount of activity in the city. There’s always something going on. Places to visit. Exhibitions to see. Concerts to attend. So much so that there is a danger that life in Hungary revolves around the capital and we don’t take or make the time to venture further afield.

The Hungarian countryside is just as active. Quirkiness reigns. The road to the Balaton is well travelled, with the lakeside villages and towns offering plenty by way of distraction. But off the M7 between here and there are other delights just waiting to be discovered, ones that you stumble across when you take a wrong turn or are travelling between one place and the next.

I’d passed the sign for a buffalo reservation on my way to Balatonmaygaród a number of times but only recently took the time to stop and explore. When I think of Hungary, I think of grey cattle and mangalica pigs. I think of birds of prey and wild boar. Buffalo don’t usually come to mind.

And when I think of buffalo, I think of the bison of North America. The wood bison, the largest animal on the continent, can weigh up to 900 kg. It differs from the plains bison (seen in Alaska) in that its tallest point is in front of its front legs, giving it that distinctive leaning-forward look. It’s woollier, too.  I also think of the African buffalo, with its fabulous curly horns. But the buffalo in Hungary look more like shortlegged, humpbacked cows. So much so that when we saw them, we had to look not twice, but three or four times to be sure they were buffalo.

bt-2016-42These relations of the Asian water buffalo roam the reserve at Kápolnapuszta, part of the Balaton-felvidéki National Park. Not quite as big as their North American counterparts, they can weigh up to 700 kg and have more angular faces and straighter horns. The 1.5 km interactive walking trail is very educational, teaching everything about their eating habits and how they breed as well as how they behave in general.

They’re very fond of water and given the choice between working and playing in the water, there’s no contest. They can amuse themselves for hours wallowing in the mud, so much so that you’d wonder what is going on in their heads.

A small museum has an exhibition of the flora and fauna in the area. It also includes the history of the buffalo in Hungary. Picnic tables abound and there are telescopes and a lookout tower from which to view the animals if they’re not cooperating and hanging out close the trails.

I had no idea that buffalos were once popular domestic animals in this country, raised for their meat, their milk, and their might. Many were put to work pulling carts. And while I’m quite fond of a good piece of buffalo mozzarella, I had thought it got its name from its shape rather than from its origins. But yes, it’s made from the milk of the buffalo cow.

Domestic buffalo in Hungary almost disappeared in the 1950s but they were saved from extinction and today, some 300 animals roam freely on the reserve in Zala county. We had the good fortune to see them on the march, one following the other as they made their way across the plain.  The old John Denver song came to mind:

Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam
Where the deer and the antelope play
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word
And the skies are not cloudy all day

And that just about sums up what I’ve learned of Zala county.

The reserve is open daily in October from 9:00 to 17:00 and from 1 November to 31 March it closes at 16:00. All are welcome.

First published in the Budapest Times 21 October 2016

As the week draws to a close, I’m officially confused. Even more so than usual. Back in 2009, I went on a road-trip to Eastern Hungary and saw one of the simplest and most beautiful churches I’ve seen, ever. Since then, when I think of Gothic, that’s what comes to mind. So yesterday, in the Church of St George in Spišská Sobota, I was a little taken aback to read that it was Gothic, too. And the two couldn’t be more different.

img_7106_easy-resize-com Just as we went in, a busload of Austrian tourists descended on the place and we got lost in the crowd. Taking photos was verboten and usually not one to break the rules, I put my camera on silent and shut down the flash. But when I could, I snapped. I made my peace with God figuring that such a beautiful place deserves a wider audience.

It’s a miracle that the five Gothic altars have survived as long as they have (the earliest dates back to the 1400s) and are in such good nick. They’re stunning.

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The 1464 Altar of the Blessed Virgin features the four principal virgins (a new one on me, one that leaves me wondering what made them principals?): St Dorothy of Cesarea, St Catherine of Alexandria, St Margaret of Antioch, and St Barbara of Nicodemia. The two on the right look shinier than the others because they’re copies. The real ones were stolen back in 1993. Is nothing sacred any more?

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But beautiful and all as the altars (and the Holy Tomb) are, it was the modern-day stained glass windows that mesmerised me. Added over time from 2007 to 2013 they’re quite something. Each has a story. I could’ve looked at them for hours trying to interpret their meanings. I didn’t manage to get photos that did them any sort of justice, but someone else did. They’re worth checking out.

I’ve banged on before about modern architecture and the shortsightedness of urban planners ruining the look of places so I was really glad (and grateful) to see that it is possible for old and new to coexist and harmonise. It’s a matter of taste. When fifteenth-century Gothic can sit quite happily beside twenty-first-century whatever, that’s something to behold.

Higher up the Tatras, in the town of Nový Smokovec, there’s an Evangelical Church with one of the most interesting altar backdrops I’ve seen. One that makes Christ look positively human. That too, I could have looked at for hours, but the church was locked up and standing on the wrong side of locked doors shortchanged the moment.

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And not alone am I confused, I’m also a little worried. September is officially over. And October has opened with a bang. Today, Hungary will to the polls in a referendum that asks the question:

Do you want the European Union to be able to mandate the obligatory resettlement of non-Hungarian citizens into Hungary even without the approval of the National Assembly?

Critics say this is the Hungarian version of Brexit – I hope that’s an overreaction. But for months now, the city has been awash with billboards asking questions like:

  • Did you know? More than 300 people were killed in terrorist attacks in Europe since the start of the migrant crisis.
  • Did you know? The Paris terrorist attacks were carried out by immigrants.
  • Did you know? 1.5 million illegal immigrants arrived to Europe in 2015.
  • Did you know? Brussels wants the forced resettling of a city’s worth of illegal immigrants into Hungary.
  • Did you know? Almost one million immigrants want to come to Europe from Libya alone?
  • Did you know? Since the start of the immigration crisis, sexual harassment of women has increased in Europe?

I worry that the propaganda might have taken hold. I hope not. It remains to be seen whether reason prevails.

I parked Ime on the grass inside the gate. I was basking in the glory of having off-street parking when my neighbour dropped by to warn me about the weavils. From what I gathered, they climb into the car, up into the engine, and do untold damage to the wiring. Sometimes, they even nest. A home from home, of sorts. At least this is how I translated the steady flow of Hungarian with the accompanying hand gestures.

careng4Her remedy appeared to involve water. I thought I understood but didn’t quite believe that she was suggesting putting two bowls of water in front of the car as this would magically deter them from moving in.

I googled weavils – they’re insects. So I revised my understanding and my translation to read weasels. That made more sense. I could see those furry animals looking for a warm place out of the cold (even though it was a lovely, sunny, 25 degrees in late September).

The next day, I awoke to find that she’d been a tad impatient or perhaps sensed that I (a) didn’t fully understand or (b) didn’t quite believe her remedy. Two 1.5-litre plastic bottles of water stood sentry in front of the car. Each to their own, I thought. I could humour her in the interests of good neighbourly relations.

Then, walking up the village later that day, I spotted another car parked in a garden, facing out to the street. It, too, had two bottles of water standing guard. And then I saw a third. It would seem that Hungarian weasels (into which I also read mice and other furry rodents) are afraid of bottled water. Interestingly, all bottles were the same brand. Perhaps the rodents can read.

I googled some more and there’s loads of stuff on the Net about home cures for wire-gnawing rodents. Everything from spraying the grass you park on with rat pee (and yes, you can buy this … in Germany anyway) to spraying the wires with hot pepper spray.

Another site suggested stretching chicken wire tightly over a frame and laying this under your car as apparently squirrels (and presumably other such animals) don’t like walking on mesh.

In the area of Southern Germany where I live the culprits are usual members of the marten family. Here some people solve the problem by placing a wooden frame covered in stretched chicken wire under the motor compartment of the car when its parked. Apparently the beast don’t like to walk on the chicken wire and so don’t climb into the engine compartment.

Marders are a particular problem in Switzerland apparently. There you can insure your car against marder damage. One contributor to a forum swears it works:

You can also insure your car against Marder damage. Since I have insured my car the Marder has never come back.

careng3Now, I’ve been driving for years. I’ve lived in some wild and wonderful places teeming with all sorts of wildlife and never once have I even heard of this phenomenon. But as sure as shinola, now that I know about it, it’ll happen. I’ve heard tell of devices you can fit to the front grid that emit a high-pitched noise that scares them away. But what if it drives all the dogs in the ‘hood mad? There’s another that has a strobe light. But that might scare away the fox and the deer. For the minute, I think I’ll stick to the water bottles. Unless anyone has any other bright ideas?

When you go to Sunday mass in a small village where everyone knows everyone, you’re bound to stick out if you’re not a local. When you don’t plan ahead and pack your Sunday best, it’s difficult to adhere to the dress code. The men, for the most part, were all suited and booted with collars and ties. The women were all pressed and dressed giving their best handbags an airing. Dark, sombre colours were the order of the day.

His bright turquoise hoodie over a shirt and grey jeans glowed like a neon light on the approach and got the heads turning from a distance. As we walked to the door, three ladies standing sentry looked me up and down with the practiced eyes of mothers who’d sent an army of kids to school after a hands and nails check. My Hungarian isn’t what it should be but I know enough to know that my cropped pants were worthy of a comment and three sets of raised eyebrows as was the fact that I was wearing no socks. I had no argument. My mother would have said exactly the same in a look that would have creased the trousers, too. Okay for a weekday mass but definitely not what to wear on a Sunday.

But it wasn’t the clothes that did me in. ‘Twas the lipstick. Bright red. To match my scarf. I like a little colour. But it screamed HARLOT!!! I took solace in the fact that the village would have something to talk about for the week ahead.

Kneeling is part and parcel of the Sunday aerobics class that many non-Catholics view as mass. But in this particular church, the kneelers were so low that it I went into freefall when I took the plunge. Assuming (incorrectly) that mass the world over has the same kneeling points, I didn’t check what everyone else was doing before I sank to my knees, dropping from a height onto uncushioned slats. I managed to stifle my curse before it escaped and bounced off the walls. I looked around to see everyone else bending forward but not kneeling. Things are different in the countryside.

I usually leave mass then the priest leaves the altar. But having learned my lesson, I stopped and waited to see what everyone else did. No one moved. One old néni (auntie) pulled out her rosary beads as the choir sang on. To my shame, I thought ‘Oh no, not the rosary. We’ll be here till lunchtime.’ I looked around in something approaching a mild panic and thankfully hers was the only purse to open. But not until the last note had been sung did anyone make a move. The priest had vacated his spot a good three minutes earlier. No one was in a rush. Things are different in the countryside.

We were out in under 45 minutes. Budapest mass is closer to an hour or more (depending on where you go). My father is a firm believer in the 3-minute sermon and will just about tolerate a 40-minute mass. He’d have done okay. With years of research under my belt, I’ve come to the conclusion that Hungarian seminaries teach their seminarians that the minimum length of their sermons should be 10 minutes. And most oblige. As a minimum.

szodavizOutside, there were lots of friendly good mornings and plenty of interested looks but no approaches. We must have screamed NOT HUNGARIAN. We decided to walk up the village to the local bar/shop/tabac/café to check it out and get a bottle of szódaviz (soda water). You put a deposit on the spouted bottle and bring it back to be refilled. They’re hard to find in Budapest so I had been quite excited when I’d spotted a man leaving the premises the previous day with a box of six. I’m easily pleased.

In we went for a coffee. It was just coming up to 9am. One chap was happily sipping on his pálinka (Hungarian fruit brandy) and another two were enjoying a beer outside.

Pálinka in small amounts is a medicine, in large amounts a remedy, so Hungarians say.. Our grandfathers liked to start the day with a small glass of good pálinka and were convinced that they owed their health to the benevolent effects of the distillate.

A fourth came in as we were there and ordered a bottle of Törley pezsgő (Hungarian sparkling wine). He was celebrating (a new grandchild, I think). He asked for four glasses and they all had their toast. A couple more turfed up. All on bikes. We moved outside to one of two tables to have a second espresso (great coffee am happy to say) and I noticed that I was on display: the sockless harlot in the red lipstick, a lone woman among all these men. Things are different in the countryside.

Next time I go to mass, I’ll wear socks and tone down the lippie. The hoodie will be replaced by a jacket but the suit and tie won’t be happening any time soon. It’s the earliest I’ve been up on a Sunday for a while. Been to mass. Been to the pub. And still home by 10 am.

As a new chapter unfolds, life is promising all sorts of interesting experiences. This week, I’m grateful for the nudge from JFW. I’m already going through the calendar to see when I can come back and for how long I can stay. Sunny days in late September, falling asleep to the sounds of ducks on water and waking at cock crow to the baa’ing of sheep. Restorative. Good for the soul. Practically a religious experience in itself.

I’m a little more conscious of my mortality than usual these days. Life is way too short to keep putting off till tomorrow what could be done today. I might not have another nine years in the city to dither about doing all the things I said I’d do but have never got around to actually doing. So I decided to take things in hand this summer and address the Top 2 on my list.

hosp1The Hospital in the Rock Nuclear Bunker Museum (Sziklakórház Atombunker Múzeum) at Lovas út 4/c in District I opened over in Buda in 2008. Every year since, I’ve promised myself that I’d go see it. It scores a 4.5 on TripAdvisor (2421 reviews) and a 4.7 on Google hsop2Reviews (173 reviews). On the Murphy scale it gets a 4.8 for interest but loses points for value in that it’s overpriced and herd-like. It’s 4000 ft for adults for the one-hour tour (about €13/$15). No wandering around on your own. No taking photos. No dithering.

The complex is part of a 10-km stretch of caves in the bowels of Buda Castle Hill. First used as an air raid shelter during WWII, it was then fashioned into a state-of-the-art surgical hospital for 60 patients. For three years after the war it was a vaccine-producing institution. Brought back into service in 1956 during the Revolution, it packed in the wounded to the point that body heat alone raised the average temperature from 15°C to 33°C. During the Cold War it was reconstructed to make a top secret nuclear bunker and from 1962 to 2007 variously served as a stand-by hospital, a nuclear bunker and civil defence forces store. Up until 2004, one family maintained it in secrecy.  Mr Mohácsi was responsible for airing the place on daily basis and looking after the electrical and mechanical systems. Every other week, Mrs Mohácsi would clean, sterilize, and change the bed linen. Today, over 200 wax models tell its story.  And they’re so lifelike that when I opened a door to find one sitting on the loo, I apologised and blushed, before blushing again when I realised my mistake. A fascinating place.

Next on my list was the Natural History Museum (Magyar Természettudományi Múzeum) at Ludovika tér 2-6 in District VIII. It scores 4 on TripAdvisor (45 reviews) and 4.5 on Google Reviews (75 reviews). On the Murphy scale it gets a 5 for interest and loses no points for anything. Admission is a lot more reasonable at about half the price of the Hospital in the Rock if you go to everything and you can stay till they ask you to leave. Photos are possible with a photo ticket. It’s free on the first Sunday of each month for visitors under 26, and for two adults accompanying a family member under 18. And it’s free to everyone on national holidays (note for your diary: next one is 23 October).

di1di3You can visit the dinosaur garden, with its life-sized models of those magnificent beasts. There’s a temporary exhibition on anthropological forensics, explaining how much our bones can tell us about where we come from. I had a great time trying to match my nose and lips with an ancestry. I also got to watch a video on cranial reconstruction. Mind boggling. And there’s not a nerdy scientific bone in my body. Upstairs, there’s a magnificent collection of crystals that would take a couple of hours to do justice to. And everywhere else, there’s stuff – animals, birds, insects – interspersed with interactive puzzles, games, and quizzes. You could spend all day there, quite happily. But careful, unlike most other museums in the city, it’s open on Mondays and closed on Tuesdays. Well worth visiting.

First published in the Budapest Times 2 September 2016

 

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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