Although I’d said before going to bed that wild horses wouldn’t drag me out of it in the morning, my neighbours had other ideas. So we were up and on the road again before 9am. Getting out of Hajdúszoboszló was nearly as hard as finding some place to stay in it. Actually, truth be told, there must be a ‘special’ way of reading signs in this part of the world – they are few and far between and those that do exist don’t make sense. One minute the town you want is just 20km away, then it’s 21km and then 22km!!!! And the milemarkers have these peculiar +2 things that move them from 270 to 269 back to 271… all while travelling in the same direction. I am convinced that it’s time warp country!

IMG_3628So, although we were heading one way, we ended up in Nádudvar, home to the black-pottery cottage industry. I have seen a lot of pottery in my time in Hungary, but this was a first for me and it’s a grower! The town also has a small cemetery with graves of Russian soldiers killed in WWII. Some of them born in WWI only to die in WWII. What a waste. We were aiming for Hortobágy – home of the Hungarian cowboy. Ok, so I was hearing Marty Stuart and Travis Tritt in my head, and was having visions of Clint Eastwood riding into town. And was I ever wrong. Nope, these cowboys were fellas of another cut entirely! The guide book says it’s been milked by the Hungarian Tourism for everything it’s worth… and that’s true. More tat.. .but this time, tat that you could use, if you had a yard where you could cook the goulash and crack the whips! IMG_3638 Still, it was worth the trip. The town itself is in the middle of a huge national park, home to many diffferent types of birds, including the bustard, which can be as tall as 1 meter and weigh as much as 20kg.

IMG_3655We took a trip on a railway into the park… half an hour in, half an hour to look around, half an hour back. It was a rackety old thing and had it managed to build up any speed at all, it would have been postively orgasmic. There were some serious twitchers in our midst (they actually have a uniform of sorts), but for the most part, it was just something to do. I can’t say it was high on my list but then I’d already gotten all those churches, and fair’s fair. Once in there though, it was gorgeous. So quiet. High reeds and rushes and acres and acres of yellow lily pads. A great place for a cyling trip… if you’re into that sort of thing!

Moving on and closer to home, we went looking for food  into Tiszafüred. Maybe it was because we were tired and it was hot and we were hungry, but things started to take on a little surrealness. Credit card swiped, taken away, forgotten; food ordered, billed for and never received; and what I thought were pickled apples turned out to be apple pickles… and yes, there’s huge difference. It was time to unwind and preferably away from the tourists. After lunch, we headed to Poroszló, parked the car and went for a dip in the Tisza.  It has been years and years and years since Hungary has had a coastline but it certainly knows how to make the most of the water it has. This spot was lovely. IMG_3679Mind you, even the strongest Hungarian sun can’t seem to make a dint on these whiter-than-white legs of mine…no matter how long I spend in it, or how hard I try.

Totally refreshed and ready to brave the city again, we headed back to Budapest. We had travelled over 900km since 6.15 on Thursday and had seen so much of the country. It was nice though, to sit, finally, and have a very large, cold beer at Pot Kulcs having dropped that car back at PM’s.

City trips are great. Weekends away are lovely. But you can’t beat a road trip for the freedom to stop wherever you like, whenever  you like. Next time though, we need to rethink the music!!!

Up at the crack of dawn, we joined the procession of cars wending their way towards the flea market. According to the guide book (?) we could look forward to ‘a motley crowd consisting of Hungarians, Romanians, Poles, Ukrainians and Roma selling the usual diamonds-to-rust mixture of goods’. In my mind, I’d already found the csillár (chandelier) for my living room, complete with four complementary wall lights, not to mention an eight-place Herend dinnerservice in muted greens. What I found was the usual tacky tat (mostly from China) and lots of vegetables. As we left, the queue of cars to come in was about two miles long! I would have been gutted, had I queued for hours only to leave empty-handed. It wasn’t a complete waste of time though – the chocolate palacsinta (crepe) made a great breakfast!

The plan was to drive to Beregdarác for the village fair and then take it from there. Simple really. The previous couple of days, both the church in Parádsasvár and the one in Mezőkövesd had been closed and as churches (open churches, ones where I can have three wishes and light a candle) are high on my list of things to see, we followed the signs for Máriapócs, home to the weeping Black Madonna (I have a fascination with the Black Madonnas). This particular one though has been removed to Vienna and what remains in Máriapócs is a nineteenth-century copy. This gave us some solace when, after driving around the country for sport (neither of us are great navigators: in fact, when I say I couldn’t find my way out of a paper bag at the best of times, KG is only marginally better, but better she is!) we arrived to find the chuch under renovation. And yes, it was closed. What do the faithful do for sanctuary in this part of the world? An open church is as difficult to find as a glass of wine in Parádsasvár after 9pm!

IMG_3483Our luck was in, though, when we got to Nyírbátor. The Calvinist church there is reputed to be one of the most beautiful Gothic churches in Hungary and it was open! Now, I’m a tad rusty on my architectural periods but this certainly isn’t what comes to mind when I think ‘Gothic’. Nice ceiling though. Am sure PJF will have a comment or two on this! From there it was on to Mátészalka for some Hortobágyi húsos palacsinta (meat pancakes – what can I say, I’d been in pancake mood since breakfast!). Having eaten our fill, we mosied on to Fehérgyarmat, where the chuch was also closed. Honestly, I was beginning to despair at this stage. Mind you, it did have some rather lovely carvings in the grounds: once again, we were on the outside looking in! IMG_3495From there is was on to Tivador, a little town with the most gorgeous carved wooden street signs and then on to Tarpa, home to yet another Calvinist church, also closed! IMG_3497 Apparently, the Reformation brought Calvinism to Hungary and the Thirty-Years War (1618–1648) established Debrecen as a fortress of the Reformed faith, which explains the number of Calvinist churches in the area.

Eventually we made it to Beregdaróc – the reason for the road trip in the first place. The place was deserted. What could we do but laugh – all this way for nothing. Not a sound from anywhere. And then we turned a corner and met the crowds – the cars, the buses, the villagers, and a Canadian! It was good, down-home fun with lots of music, dancing and crafts. KG had arranged to meet a cross-stitcher (who has won the Kis Janos Bóri prize in her day) so we hooked up with her and went to see her exhibit at the school and then back to her house to sample some hazi palinka. I couldn’t drink, of course. Those damned laws! But I did get a little bottle to take home with me. The Greek Catholic chuch was open and although there were no candles to light, I did get my three wishes!  With all the fun at the fair, it was past five when we left. And, as neither of us can make a decision to save our lives, we just drove on down the road to see where it would take us.

IMG_3608The road led to Csaroda , where a lovely little old woman took a massive key from her pocket and opened the church for us. The cross-stitching in this part of the world is everywhere – and is recognised as a true craft with women gaining folkartist status if good  enough. The church here was full of it. And the painted woodwork was something else. I think that after this trip, plain and simple is the way to fo for a house of worship… forget the marble and the gold. As I child, I remember Fr Jim, a relative of my mother’s, coming home from the missions. When he’d visit a church, he’d pop inside the confessionals and tap the wood; walk up on the altar and check out the tabernacle; he’d even check out the altar cloths! I was horrified that someone, anyone, could be so bold. If he were alive today and visited Hungary, he’d get plenty of ideas of simple houses of worship, where you can simply be, without distraction.

Then it was on to the almost Sussex-like village of Takos for a much-needed coffee and some decision-making. There again, the church (known as the barefooted Notre Dame) was bloody closed  but the café was open. The woman of the house was sitting by the window, cross-stitching. To be female in these parts and not to be able to wield a needle and thread must be akin to being Irish and not knowing how to cook a potato! We decided to head south to Debrecen and make up our mind where to stay along the way. Through an inability to decide, an uncooperative hotelier in Hortobágy, and a wedding en route, we ended up driving to Hajdúszoboszló. The guide book calls it a cross between Blackpool, Bondi Beach and Coney Island. I’ve spent a lovely day in Blackpool watching the bikers take their dancing shoes from the saddlebags and twirling around the dance floor. I’ve never been to Bondi and  I honestly can’t remember Coney Island but truth be told, all I wanted was a bed and it was supposed to have accomodation aplenty! It was like driving through a time warp. Flat land everywhere. Fields of sunflowers and corn. Lights in the distance but nothing to suggest the sheer size of the place. Known as the ‘poor man’s Balaton’ the thermal springs were discovered when some plonker was drilling for oil. The place is surreal. Packed to the gills with the young and the trendy; sidewalk bars and restaurants; amusement parks; stalls selling touristy tat and candyfloss… it was incredible and it was buzzing. So much for those who think this is where the frail and the elderly come to be cured! There wasn’t a zimmerframe in sight. I was stuck to the seat of the car, in danger of hallucinating for want of a beer on what was still a very hot day. I’d driven nearly 275 km, so KG had to go find a room – we drove around and must have checked 12 or more places, none of which would take us in, before we found the Lila Hotel. Now, it’s seen better days, but it was clean. And so what if there were no towels and the wallpaper was peeling off the walls, and the clientele looked liked the bailmen could be coming a callin’, it was a bed. And was I grateful! The beer could wait.

IMG_3412For once in my hotel life, I was ready for breakfast before it was ready for me. Parádsasvár goes to bed early and wakes up late! Breakfast didn’t start until 9.15! Fully fortified and laden with crystal, we set off on the road to Nyíregyháza…a journey of about 190km, without detours! One of the best things about roadtrips is being able to stop whenever and wherever you fancy. My shout was for the National Memorial Park at Recsk. It was here, between 1950 and 1953, that the Bolshevik dictatorship’s death-labour camp operated, far from public eye. When Stalin died, Nagy Imre closed the camp (he, himself, was later executed by the Communist government). It’s a strange place. Very simple. You can clearly see the foundations of the barracks and the kitchens,  and some of the original barbed-wire fence still exists. There is one barracks standing (I think it’s a replica, as from what I gather, the original camp was completely destroyed – the physical evidence disposed of). Athough the exhibit is in Hungarian, you don’t need to understand the language to imagine what must have gone on there. Wolf Pangloss has some interesting stuff to say about it on his blog. And it all went on, just 5km outside the town. Robbie Burns had it right when he spoke about man’s inhumanity to man.

Duly chastened, we continued on to Mezőkövesd, home to Bóri Kis Jankó, IMG_3442Hungary’s answer to Grandma Moses. For nearly 80 years, she stitched her famous ‘100 roses’ patterns and now, in the Hudas district of the town, other artisans display their work and demonstrate their crafts. Legend has it that, one winter, the devil kidnapped a Mátyó lad. When his girlfriend begged the devil to send her boy back, he agreed but only on condition that she swapped him for her apron and a flower (mmmm….interesting…the going rate for a man in those days!) The devil thought he was being clever as flowers are in pretty short supply in this area in winter. But the girl was smart; she embroidered a rose on her apron and got her man back.  The traditional costume of the region still includes an apron with a rose (for both lads and lasses). Why doesn’t this sort of stuff still happen?

Anyway, this collection of thatched and whitewashed cottages houses the best of traditional craftwork in the Mátyó region. The thatch is different to what we have in Ireland – more of a hollowed-out reed. Interesting. The detail is really something, though, in everything…even down to the carved wooden gates! I was particularly taken with Tibor Fehér’s ceramic bells and have added one to my travel tree. KG was in her element, her being in the business and it was impressive watching her talk with the embroiderers in Hungarian. We were half-expecting to see some old dears sitting outside, cross-stitching in the sun but we were out of luck. One reason to go back – another would be the pizza! If you ever find yourself there, and hungry… go to Pizza 6  on Szomolyai u. 3. Am salivating at the thought of it.

After all that lovely traditional culture, we ran slap bang into another sort of culture as we drove into Nyíregyháza. Me being a rugby fan, KG having little obvious interest in sport, and the region’s expert on all things soccer was in India, the chances of our knowing that Ferencváros were playing Nyíregyháza (soccer) that evening were non-existent. We were circumnavigating the city (the seventh-largest city in Hungary) trying to find our  panzió when we ran into two busloads of FV supporters being ‘escorted off the premises’ by riot police…scary-looking chaps in kevlar vests, helmetes, brandishing semi-automatics! At least, given the state of them, I hope they were being taken away from the match rather than being escorted to the stadium. The convoy crossed in front of us and it was like watching a particularly nasty movie. Some (?) FV fans are ultra-right-wing, violent racists – young kids and grown adults, boys and girls, men and women – whom you wouldn’t want to meet in daylight, let alone in a dark alley. (I met the lovely Kriza Bóri recently, who directed Dübörög a nemzeti rock, a documentary that scared me shitless. Her interviews with the FV fans made my blood run cold. How such mindless hatred can exist is beyond me.) Once the convoy passed, we motored on and again, ended up in the middle of it – this time nearer the stadium (The signposting in Nyíregyháza is woeful.) Driving slowly up a crowded street, a couple of opposing fans were doing a Siege of Ennis  advance/retire across the road in front of our car. At one retire, we passed through. In the rearview mirror, I saw a chap guy take off his belt, wrap it around his fist so that the buckle swung free and then launch himself across the road. All hell broke loose. These lads were old enough to know better. The car behind us had a front-row seat.

IMG_3474We eventually found our hotel… a small 26-room affair billed as a ‘former communist retreat’ – Ózon – near to Sóstófürdo. It was rather lovely. In a country where customer service hasn’t really caught on, this place has it in spades. They couldn’t have been nicer and the food… my God, the dinner I had is up there on the top 10 meals in Hungary… and high up there… No. 3 spot!!!! Before dinner though, we headed up the road to Sóstófürdo to the salt lake, which wasn’t really salty. But the thermal baths were a peculiar shade of green though… a nice way to start the evening after a long, hard day on the road! And yes, there is a soccer God…. FV were beaten 3-1 by the home crowd. Nice one!

It was another early night. Hungary has a zero-tolerance approach to drinking and driving so not as much as a chocolate liquer or a spoonful of sherry trifle is advised. We could have left the car at home and walked, but then we thought it prudent not to wander the streets that particular night. Anyway, I was knackered: I remember as a child asking my dad why he was tired – all he had done was drive all day!

IMG_3404I love to drive. When I lived in Valdez, Alaska, I would drive 306 miles to play two rounds of golf and then drive home again. My perspective on distance changed immeasurably. Alaska does that to you. Now that I’m Budapest-based, I miss driving. There’s no need for me to have a car in the city as public transport is great (and yes, I’d be hard-pushed to find a Hungarian who would agree with me, but compared to Dublin or London…it’s great). So when the ever-generous PM offered me the use of his trusty steed, and the adventurous KG mentioned a village fair in North Eastern Hungary, 2+2 quickly added to ‘when are we leaving?’

We left Budapest shortly after 6pm on Thursday.  I was a tad nervous navigating the city – Budapest’s drivers are short on patience and it’s  been a while since I’ve driven on the wrong side of the road.  But we managed. We stopped to buy the requisite matrica vignette (the toll ticket) and tank up. We got the ‘all clear’ from the petrol pump guy who kindly checked the oil and water (and yes, they’re in the same place as in Irish and American cars – there’s globalisation for ya!). While KG was in paying, a very bubbly Alexandra came over to beg a lift to the next petrol station. She and her French-Canadian boyfriend Pascal had left Budapest that morning (hours ago) heading  to a Rainbow festival in the Ukraine (peace, love, harmony, show your disgust at materialism etc) and were still trapped inside the Outer Ring Road. No worries, says I, after due consultation with KG. Happy to oblige. I could cope with youth and optimism and bubbliness and keep my cynicism in check for ten minutes!

IMG_3403KG and I were heading to Parádsasvár, a town about 105km north of Budapest, to St Hubertus Panzió – the first leg of a journey that would take us close to the Ukraine border in the north-east.  The town itself is mostly famous for the late-nineteenth-century Kastélyhotel (the Palace Hotel) and although the budget didn’t permit a night there, we had planned to pop over for a nightcap…being neighbourly, like. We hadn’t bargained for the gated grounds and reservations-only policy. The guide book had mentioned the ‘Secret-serice style security’ but who believes guide books? We could only peep in through the bars from our vantage point at St Hubertus Panzió (pictured). 

IMG_3390It was easy to believe that the ugly sisters were having a ball across the road in the Palace. The hotel lights up on the hour in the hours of darkness and the lights flash on and off to music for about two minutes. I wonder if Ybl Miklós, the architect responsible for this ‘restored hunting lodge’ and also the State Opera House in BP is turning in his grave or laughing at the good of it? On the other hand, SHP had a certain Cinderella feel to it anyway! We had to eat on arrival as the restaurant closed at 9pm and the ‘bar’ with it! The airconditioning control in the room was under lock and key (shame on those of you who took advantage of it and have made the rest of us suffer!). And it wasn’t until we returned from our ‘late-night’ recce of the village (at 10.21pm!!!) that we realised the gates shut at 10pm. I reckon that had the intrepid KG been American, she’d have been the model for  Nancy Drew. Having tried every door and doorbell we could find to no avail, KG climbed over the gate and managed to attract the attention of a man with a cardkey, who kindly came down and let me in. (I’m not near as nimble and her 32s are longer than my 28s.)

Aside from the Palace, Parádsasvár is also famous for its Takacs crystal. And, as de wimmen are coming over in October en masse and I only have six place settings, I thought it prudent to invest in a set of eight wine glasses and, sure while I was there, why not eight dessert wine glasses. I know that Messes Macker and McCabe are rather partial to a sweet wine with cheese after dinner! Lovely, lovely stuff. And guess what? Their Christmas tree ornaments also light up… no music though! Parádsasvár does seem to have a thing about lights!

August 6, 2008, I partied hard and remember going to 6am mass on my way home on the 7th after dancing myself through the night. August 6, 2009, I was in bed, asleep, before midnight, having managed to contain my child-like excitement at the thoughts of three more days of driving to places unknown. I had driven with the best Hungarian roads had to offer; witnessed the surreal musical light show at the Palace; and practically aided and abetted a B&E. All on 4dl of a rather decent dry white from Egér. Am I getting older and wiser, or just older?

IMG_2772Well, I finally made it to the Hungarian Sea. To Balaton (or to ‘the Balaton’) as is said here. The typical Friday afternoon crawl of cars heading down to to Balaton is a sight to behold in itself. Anyone who is prepared to spend hours in traffic just to reach the lake has to really appreciate it for what it is. Apart from being the largest lake in Central Europe, with a surface covering 592 km², it’s a respite from the heat-laden capital. And it’s big:  77 km from north to south with widths varying from 4 to 14 km. It can get to 12.2 m deep but averages about 3.2 m. Water temperatures in the summer get to about 25 cm so it’s perfect for swimming. Back in the old days, it was where East met West – literally. Families from East Germany could travel to Hungary freely, and those from West Germany could get visas to visit; so it was at the Balaton that they met over the summer.

JFW brought the Elizabeth Jane over from England and she’s now happily moored at Tihany marina. The present owners bought the marina about seven years ago. It’s run for profit, to finance its not-for-profit sailing school. A lovely spot with a tiny private beach. We took the ferry across to Tihany after driving about 90 minutes from Budapest. After I had my morning sun and ‘sea’, we headed in to Balatonfüred for lunch. The town is famous for its water. People used to mix water from Whey spring, in front of the Heart Clinic, with sheep’s cottage cheese as a cure for lung disease.  Today, the medicinal waters are used to heal heart and circulatory diseases and for treating general exhaustion.   This last bit is a little ironic, considering that the lakeside was packed with tourists, local and foreign, and was far from relaxing. I so resent my water space being populated. Honestly, when I win the lottery, I’d like to buy an island so that I could read by the water in silence. Am I too young to be so crotchety? IMG_2806

 The ‘nightingale of the nation’ Blaha Lujza had her summer residence here, about 300 m from the lake. Must have been nice! She got this nickname after asking the emperor  Francis Joseph to pardon 13 Hungarian hussars who were sentenced to death.

KG and MI headed off to Tihany later that afternoon, but too much sun and the prospect of a couple of hours in the water took me back to the marina. I really, really, really want to live beside the sea. Or at least beside some water.  I could happily fall asleep every evening to the sound of water breaking on rocks or seagulls singing for their supper.

Tihany is another lovely town best seen in late evening when the daytrippers have gone home. Famous for its monastery and lavender fields, it straddles that fine line IMG_2834between kitsch and quaint. The Benedictine Monastery was founded in 1055 and the foundation charter is the earliest written record extant of the Hungarian language. Like a number of other Hungarian towns and villages, Tihany also has its ‘Calvary’ – huge, outdoor stations of the cross leading up a hill to the three crosses on Calvary. Very moving.

We had dinner there before heading back to the city and I tried the famous fish soup. I’m glad I did. Now that I’ve done it once, there’s no need for me to ever do that again!

IMG_2555And, no, I’ve not gone over the other side. But even I had to respect the greatness that is Real Madrid and pay homage when living practically next door, albeit for 48 hours, to what some consider to be sacred ground. And it was quite the experience. Somehow, I’d never equated a soccer stadium with clubbing, or ever imagined a soccer crowd clad in Prada, Ralph Lauren and D&G… and that’s not even going near the girls. Madrid truly is home to some beautiful people; never once did I see an inch of scruff on a Spanish-speaking  bod. Bright colours, up-to-the-minute fashion, perfectly coiffed and manicured, these lads are gorgeous. And lovely. Chatty, intelligent, and lots of fun. And what profiles!!! Even their graffiti is a cut above the ordinary. Heads are round to allow thoughts to flow in all directions.

The first thing that struck me about Madrid is the greenery. I had to keep reminding myself I was in  city. Magnolia trees everywhere. Long, wide avenues lined with green; huge parks with water fountains, lakes and more trees. It is beautifully sculpted. It, too, has its old parts, its grand squares, and its narrow, cobblestoned streets. It also has its ultramodern skyline with every brand name you can think of dotting the horizon. It’s a strange mix, this old and new and had it not been 38 degrees in the shade, I might have given it a little more thought. It’s definitely out of my time zone – the afternoon siesta I can deal with; going out to eat at 10 or 11 at night would take a complete reprogramming of my body clock. Staying out until 6am is what I used to do…perhaps that’s it. In Madrid, I felt old.  IMG_2673

After seven years in Alaska, I find it difficult to cope with heat if I’m not near water (and yes, I too ask myself what I’m doing in Budapest… ) Sitting in the shadow of the palace having coffee, I saw three older women, dolled up to the nines, gilt edged and gorgeous enjoying an animated chat over an aperitif or three. One in particular struck me and I found myself hoping that I would be just like her when I got to her age. Eccentrically gorgeous, gossiping with my girlfriends and setting the world to rights over a glass of wine. The sheer energy of the Madridites is exhausting.

The lovely KB, my guide, and her gorgeous fellah R_G, crammed as much as possible into two days. I saw lots and more. I discovered Clara – lager with lemon; ate tapas until they came out my ears; and even had my cards read. Another story entirely.

IMG_1998It’s hard to say what it is that keeps taking me back to Bratislava… apart from second-time visitors to Budapest wanting to broaden their horizons. For some very strange reason, I’m in love with the city. I don’t think I could live there though… yet there’s something strangely cathartic about getting off the train after 2.5 hours of journeying through the Hungarian and Slovakian countryside and stepping into the world of John le Carré. It’s like being back in the Cold War…or at least what I imagine being in the Cold War would have been like.  It’s not the best side of the city by any means. Generally hustling with all sorts – backpackers, touristy tourists, local commuters, shoppers, and the usual hang-abouters that come with every train station – it’s far from picturesque. Concrete just doesn’t cut it when it comes to atmosphere. Still, though, there is something in the air. Slovakia joined the eurozone in January this year and I missed that bit of excitement this time around. There’s something rather magical about getting used to new money; the temporary suspension of reality when you just spend and hope for the best, having tried in vain to come up with an easy denominator to make the calculations easy.

The No. 13 tram takes you down into the old town – the historic centre – and close enough to my hotel of choice, the Kyjev. The lift takes minutes to get to the top floor and when you step inside, you step back in time about thirty years. My imagination runs riot and again, I can see spies around every corner. I love it. Nothing has been touched in years. This is in sharp contrast to the old town, where modern sculptures have been plonked in random places.

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I’ve been to Bratislava four times now, and each time have made a valiant effort to light a candle in the Cathedral. Only it’s never been open to the public. I’ve been on varying days – Monday, Thursday, Friday, Sunday and each time it’s been closed. Right next door to this rather splendid tribute to Catholicsm, is a far more intriguing building that is overshadowed by its neighbour. Personally, I think it has more character; better reflects the mood of the people; and for me, symbolises the arty side of old age. If it were a poem, it would be Jenny Joseph’s When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple. You have to hand it to the Bratislavans – they take any and every opportunity available to art it. The day I was there, we came across a bunch of lads who had just taken part in choral competition. While waiting outside on the street to be summoned for their photo call, they started singing. Beautiful a cappella. The jury is out on who enjoyed it more: the singers or those fortunate enough to happen past at that moment. That is Bratislava. You never quite know what’s around the next corner. It’s not somewhere to spend a week – a day and a night is plenty – yet no two days or two nights are quite the same.

IMG_2393There is something strangely evocative about this picture. In Slovenia, in the Karst region, they plant rose bushes at both ends of a row of vines to attract the bugs and keep them away from the grapes. Rows and rows of crucifix-like vines, each with a blazing bush of red roses topping and tailing it. We give roses to symbolise so many things: red for love, passion, respect and courage; yellow for friendship, freedom, and to welcome home; pink for sympathy, admiration, gratitude or appreciation; lavender for lust and love at first sight; and white for sincerity, innocence, secrecy and pure love. And and yet, in this corner of the world, roses are sacrificed for the greater glory…that glory being wine!

I’ve been nurturing a fondness for Hungarian wine and, although I am far from being expert in these matters, I became quite quickly attached to Slovenian white. So much so that I lugged a three-litre flask of it home on five trains and two buses! There’s dedication for you. Once a year, in the Karst region, Slovenians celebrate ‘eight’. Years ago, in old Empress Marie-Theresa’s day, she allowed farmers to sell their produce, tax free, for eight days each year. Now, villages take it in turns to rotate the ‘osmica’ with one farm in each village hosting eight days and nights of food, wine and music. Everyone contributes. It’s a great night out – home cured meats (cured in the wind rather than smoked), cheeses, and fine wines and liquors all oiled by some local musicians. How strange it was to hear Country Roads in Slovenian… but even though the words were different, the music was still the same! A lot like going to mass in Budapest!

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The youth hostel in Pliskovica is perfectly sited for travelling across the border to nearby Trieste. The village itself is lovely – one street that winds its way up hill and down vale. Stunning views over the Karst region and that sense of homeliness that you miss when living in the city. On Saturday night, we headed to Piran and to get there, we cut through Italy and back into Slovenia again.  The borders have gone now; just empty sentryboxes and lone barricades. Piran is what some call the Dubrovnik of the North Adriatic – but that description only helps if you’ve been to Dubrovnik. It’s a coastal town with stunning views across the water to Croatia. And there’s a boat connection to Venice… a link that might explain the Venetian Gothic architecture.  Fresh fish is the thing to eat and the wine… while not of the same calibre as that of the farm near Pliskovica, was lovely, too. I’d like to go back.

I was asking BB, one of the Slovenian lads on the trip, if he’d lived abroad. He hasn’t. He’s travelled a lot, but has no desire to move abroad; no desire to live anywhere else because in Slovenia, he has everything. Mountains, beaches, forests, caves, cities… and you know, he has a point. It’s easy to see the attraction. It does a weary heart good to see a people still in love with their homeland, still passionate about its story, eager to share its today while happily looking forward to its tomorrow. It truly is a magical place.

K-doh? Ky? Key-vay? K-day? Doesn’t make it any easier does it? Simple questions though, if you know Slovenian. Kdo – who? Me. Kaj – what? Passing the time until my lift to the country. Kje – where? Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. Kda – why? En route from Budapest to a work weekend for the European Scout Region’s adult resources group – too much info I know. In a nutshell, I had about six hours in Ljubljana before being picked up and driven to the final destination.

The last time I was in Ljubljana was in the 1980s when Slovenia was still part of Yugoslavia. I was backpacking and had met a chap called Tomas on the train from Trieste. There were no hostels in the city then and I couldn’t afford a hotel. He took me home to his mother, who lived high up in an apartment block about two hours by train from the city. The middle of nowhere. To get to his flat, we had to call to each of the  neighbours first and my rite of passage was diluted by thimbles of some very potent liquor. I was rat arsed by the time I met mum and she freaked when she heard I was Irish (we had a bad rep in those days). She calmed somewhat when he explained I was Catholic and that it was the Protestants who brought the bombs! Something definitely got lost in that translation.

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I didn’t spend long in Ljubljana then; and six hours this time wasn’t a lot either. But it was enough to get a feel for what’s a rather small and compact city. I loved it. It’s the sort of place that reminds you of lots of places – considering most of it was destroyed in the 1895 earthquake, it’s retained much of its elegance. For one who is usually drawn to the older parts of  town, the opposite happened here. Yes, the old town is lovely. But living in this part of the world, I’m in danger of becoming inured to lovely old stuff and it’s good every now and then to rattle the cage and look towards the new. Like Metelkova City.

This club complex includes a youth hostel that was a prison and is a fine example of reclaiming old space. The result is fantastic. The self-described ‘autonomous culture zone’ was born in 1993 when a group of artists, musicians and war refugees squatted in what was the former Army barracks. Spraypainted to within an inch of its life, it’s gobsmacking! And some of the sculptures are what nightmares are made of.

Metelkova City Ljubljana

You can’t help getting the feeling that someone, somewhere is giving someone the finger. It’s too way out to be generally accepted, tucked away as it is just five minutes’ walk from the train station. I headed in that direction because I’d heard of the Hostel Celica – the old jail house turned youth hostel. I planned to be back in the city Saturday night to get an early train Sunday morning, so I needed a bed for that night. I rather fancied staying in one of their cells – partly to see if  my ghosts had been fully laid to rest and partly because it was different! It was full… and anyway, I never did make it back to the city …another story.

My ‘direct’ train from Ljubljana to Budapest on Sunday, the one that involved no changes… or so I was assured when I booked it, actually turned into five trains and two buses. Quite the experience. Maybe I unknowingly trod on something in Metelkova… something that temporarily removed the order from my life and inserted in its place a sort of controlled chaos.

Back in 1817, a French Romantic novelist Henri-Marie Byle who wrote under the penname ‘Stendahl’ was visiting Florence. While visiting the Basilica of Saint Croce, he was so overwhelmed by its beauty that he had a turn. He later wrote in his diary: Everything spoke so vividly to my soul. Ah, if I could only forget. I had palpitations of the heart. Life was drained from me, what in Berlin they call ‘nerves’. I walked with the fear of falling. It wasn’t until 1979 that the condition was diagnosed and named ‘Stendhal’s syndrome’ by an Italian psychiatrist, Dr Graziella Magherini, who noticed similar psychosomatic conditions – racing heat beat, nausea and dizziness – among first-time visitors to the city. Had I not lived in Alaska for so many years and seen beauty in is rawest, most majestic form, I, too, might have suffered from Stendhal’s syndrome during my four days in Venice. It truly is a remarkable city.

 

Gondolas in front of Rialto in Venice

Gondolas in front of Rialto

From the air, it looks like a fish: the fat body containing the sestieres (the six districts that form Venice) of Cannaregio, Santa Croce, San Polo, San Marco and Dorsoduro with Castello making up the tail. It lives amongst the lagoon islands of Murano, Burano, San Giorgio Maggiore, Lido, Torcello, Guidecca, Sant’Erasmo and San Michelle. Cycling is forbidden and cars are few and far between, generally left parked in the Piazzale Roma, from where commuters travel onwards on foot or by boat.  You can take the vaporetto (a waterbus) on both canals. To cross from one side to the other on the Grand Canal between bridges, you can take the traghetto (a gondola in which you stand up rather than recline regally).  And there’s always the water taxi. You can, of course, hire your own gondola for a romantic trip through the rios. That experience I thought I’d save for later!

There are supposedly more than 500 bridges in the city and I’d say we crossed most of them. It’s a veritable labyrinth and next time I go, I’m going to do away with the map and just wander. If you get lost, you simply look up to find a yellow sign pointing the general direction of San Marco, or Rialto, or Piazzale Roma. Half the fun is finding your way home and it is so easy to walk around in circles for hours, ending up right back where you started. It’s all about the journey.

Sunshine on a calle in Venice

Sunshine on a calle

Growing up with roads and streets and squares, and having coped with the út (road), utca (street), and tér (square) in Budapest, it took a while to get my head around the Venetian toponyms: liste (main steets), crosere (crossroads), calle (a narrow street, some hardly a shoulder width, running between houses), rama (short calles, often cul-de-sacs), ruga ( a straight calle full of shops), salizzada (the first paved calli), rio (canal)  rio tera (a canal that has become a calle), fondamenta (a calle with houses on one side and a rio on the other), campo (square), corti (squares hidden inside groups of houses), sortoporgego (a passageway through a building).

Looking down the calli, particularly in Cannaregio and Costello, you see clotheslines strung between the buildings on either side with bunting-like laundry flapping in the breeze. The smell of washing powder mixes headily with the salty smell of the sea. Shoes sit on windowsills and fur coats hang in windows to air. Every inch of space is used. Venice has no more room – what’s there is being renovated – but there is no room for expansion. In the ghetto, they coped with expanding numbers by building upwards, the first skyscrapers. The doors vary so much is size that you have to wonder who lives behind them.

The buildings, old and weary, stand proudly, defying the water to do its worst, the lower third battled scarred and watermarked. The city floods at least twice a year and you can see the evidence. Neat stacks of tables wait patiently for the time when they will be set end to end to create paths above water level when the floods come. Stories abound of Venetians coming out of the cinema to be faced with a ‘wade’ home, the more cavalier men piggybacking their dates.  Everything we have on road, Venice has on water: fireboats, ambulance boats, police boats, medical boats, delivery boats, garbage boats. It really is something else.

 We spent our days wandering the streets, popping in and of shops and churches, having the occasional ice cream and the odd coffee. As ‘spending a penny’ in Venice can cost as much as €1.50, having a coffee and using their loo seemed more economical. There are all sorts of hidden charges so your bill is rarely what you expect. It is cheaper by far to eat and drink standing up then to sit down, inside or outside. We just had to have lunch on our last day at a little trattoria in San Toma that had a big sign in the window saying ‘NO COVERT CHARGE’…. a typo or a Venetian with a sense of irony?

The mind boggles at the skill and craftsmanship that went into building those churches. Some of them are massive – you’d fit five Irish churches into the one at Frari. And there are so many of them. We got mass one evening and ended up staying for vespers because it would have been rude to leave. It was my first time at vespers and a shame that I didn’t understand a word of what was being said.

Venetian mask from Venice

Sadly there are more tourists in Venice than there are residents. Government support for artisans and craftworkers translates into lots of working studios for painters, jewelers, and mask makers who seem to do it for the love of it rather than for money; customers almost seem to intrude. Like everything else, the genuine articles are endangered by cheap imports from China. Tourists are faced with a choice of spending €20 on a mask from a trader or €120 for a real, hand-made-in-Venice one. Given that it is an expensive city overall, many take the cheaper option (and no, you don’t even have to ask which one I went for….) Perhaps more could be done to highlight the fakes… knowing you’re buying a fake is one thing; thinking you’re buying the genuine article is another. On Murano, shops have signs in their windows saying they use only local glass. Those that don’t have these signs… well, you’re pretty safe in assuming that they’re importing the funny stuff! This ethical consumerism can be expensive!

After a couple of days walking the streets of the sestieres, we took to water and went island-hopping (and yes, it is possible to get lost on water as well). Up until a few years ago, San Michelle was where Venetians were buried; now it’s full so new bodies are taken to the mainland. Amongst the famous buried on this island are  Stravinksy and his wife Vera. It was sad, in a way, to see his grave laden with flowers and hers quite bare. How difficult is it, I wonder, to be married to fame? Ezra Pound and Joseph Brodsky are also at home there. The graves seem to sprout flowers … the Venetians take care of their dead.

Glass sculpture in Murano, Venice

Glass sculpture

We then headed to Murano, home of the famous murano glass, with its glassworks and street sculptures. Boats laden with boxes addressed to Holland, New York and even South Africa, lined the canals. They will ship anywhere. And it was so very, very tempting. But sense reigned and I limited my purchases to a Christmas tree ornament. Next stop was supposed to be Tortello, but we missed it. We went to the end of the line, disembarked, had a beer, and came back to Burano. Missing your stop at sea is a little like trying to turn back on the freeway.

It’s impossible not to smile on Burano. Famous for its lace (and yes, I succumbed to two scarves) its colourful houses are so cheerful. Bright, bright pinks and blues and yellows and greens – residents must compete to find the gaudiest colours possible and then paint with pride.

By a rio in Burano, Venice

By a rio in Burano

The town square in the evening is full of kids playing, adults chatting, and a palpable sense of happiness and well-being. A lovely spot.

The sounds in the city are quite typical: church bells and conversation. But in Venice, there is another one: the sound of what I thought to be rolling luggage. And then I realized it was rolling shopping bags. While you can find any amount of craft shops and churches, restaurants and bars, it’s hard to find a supermarket or a corner shop. You just follow the bag lady!  And these wheelie shoppers are young and trendy, male and female – it’s not just the purview of English or Hungarian old ‘granny’ types… it’s almost fashionable!

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And the locals certainly have style. Italian men dress so well. Even a trip to the fish market warrants careful thought and preparation. They are manicured and tailored without being effete. The gondoliers have a style of their own about them, too. One restaurant maître domo enticed us to sit a while with his dramatic rendition of ‘my mind is open, my heart is open, my restaurant is open…’ When Venetians pass each other on the street, the conversation starts as soon as they see each other, and continues well after they’ve passed each other by. Those Venetians you see apparently talking to themselves (with no visible mobile phone mics) are just talking to the person behind them walking in the opposite direction.

Of course, no trip to Venice would be complete without a visit to Harry’s Bar. It’s the reason I went and the reason I’ve been going for years but only now got there. The home of carpaccio and the bellini, Harry’s Bar was a home from home to Hemingway. It’s a quiet, unimposing bar/restaurant on the corner of Calle Valerroso. The prices are astronomical, and deliberately so. They’re designed to separate the genuine article from the fakes – those that want to sit for a while where Hemingway sat, enjoying the palpable legacy of greatness as opposed to those who read about it, know something of the man, and want to add it to the list of sights seen. While we were there, so many came in, sat down, opened the menu, read the prices and left.  The waiters were so used to this, they didn’t blink an eye. Thankfully, I had a credit card and had come a long way and waited a long time to taste my first bellini… and I’ll be back.

 

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