Posts

I was in Paris many years ago as part of an Inter-rail trip around Europe that I embarked upon myself. Alone. On my tod. I cringe when I think of how naive I was to think I could travel on my own, without mishap, for three weeks, based on the relative success of  a single weekend away in London with a friend from college, and an uneventful two weeks in the Canaries with said same friend. I was so unqualified it was pathetic.

I know I spent a night in Paris. Perhaps two – and maybe twice – one day/night each time? I’m not sure. I know I was definitely there though because I walked off an overnight train from somewhere and was half-way up the platform before I realised that my arms were swinging. And they should have been holding the bag that had my passport, my Eurocheques (remember them?), my credit card and my cash.I did what any self-respecting naive innocent abroad would do when her mammy seemed oh so very far away and unable to right her world … I sat down on my rucksack on the platform and cried.

A lovely French woman in her early 30s, whose name I can’t remember, took pity of me. I remember applying the word ‘chic’ to her in my mind and it finally embodying something tangible.  She contacted security. They located my stuff. And then she took me home to her flat and let me sleep for a few hours until she had to go to work. She even fed me breakfast.

I know I took a tour. There is no way I wouldn’t have (is there?). But I have zero recollection of seeing the three pillars of Parisian sightseeing: the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, and the Champs-Elysées . I had thought that when I went back a couple of weeks ago, unchecked memories would come flooding back – but they didn’t. The grave of the unknown soldier that lies under the Arc rang a faint bell, but so faint that it might well have been my next-door neighbour’s phone.

IMG_6475 (800x600)The Eiffel Tower is still standing (even though when it was built in 1859, it wasn’t meant to be permanent). It’s besieged by thousands of tourists who patiently queue to ascend to the top (it’s the most-visited paid monument in the world ~ 6 million a year last count). I didn’t feel the need. Since I discovered that the same chap  (Gustav Eiffel) who designed it also designed Nyugati Station in Budapest and the Statue of Liberty’s spine, some of its magic has been diluted along with its exclusivity.

IMG_6627 (800x594)Mind you, its tenacity is admirable – it was to be demolished in 1909 but was saved when some bright spark had the idea of repurposing it as a radio antenna. It was originally intended for Barcelona, in Spain, but the Spanish rejected the plans… that’s a little like some not-so-bright spark in Bloomsbury turning down the US rights to Harry Potter as they didn’t think he’d appeal to Americans (don’t know where I heard that… bloody memory… it’ll come to me). On some days, it’s taller than others, by about 15cm, because of the temperature and the paint that takes to coat it weighs as much as ten elephants. Or so they say. The best view I had of it was at night, from the Trocadero, when its twenty thousand lightbulbs were lit up. Absolutely stunning.

Napoleon commissioned the Arc de Triomphe in 1806 to honour his army, who, the previous year, had been victorious against the Russo-Austrian army at Austerlitz. He told them that they would ‘return home through archs of triumph’, but it wasn’t completed till 1836, by which stage Napoleon was dead and the army had presumably already gotten home.

IMG_6457 (800x600)As a structure, it is magnificent, every metre of its 49m x 45m x 22m expanse. For me though it’s the tomb of the unknown soldier buried there in 1920 as a reminder of the 1.5 million French soldiers who died in the Great War – that’s where the poignancy is. Apparently, every day at 6pm since 1923, French veterans and serving soldiers rekindle the flame. I can’t vouch for though but if it does indeed happen, it’s a lovely thought. I’m not in favour of war or fighting of any kind, yet those who have laid down their lives so other can live free deserve to be remembered.

The Arc sits at the top of the Champs-Elysées , the city’s favourite boulevard. Did you know that in Greek mythology, the Champs Elysées are where heroes stay after death? I didn’t, but Napoleon’s choice of location makes sense now. Just under 2 km in length, it’s 70 m wide – and takes a while to cross. It’s really only been back in fashion for about 40-something years, after being resuscitated in the 1980s. Now it’s home to all the biggest, most exclusive brand names in the world. Curiously, apparently none of the many famous painters who ever lived in Paris have painted it, so one has to wonder what the hype is about? Yes, they’re home to the Jardin des Tuilieres and provide a suitable address for many notable buildings but Andrássy in Budapest is longer at 2.3 km even if at its widest (45.5) it doesn’t even come close – and it rates just as high, if not higher, in this mind.

I’m still getting my head around the fact that I have zero recollection of my first foray to Paris, apart from the abiding distaste it left me with. I find it hard to believe that it was so uneventful, so forgettable, that I simply erased the trip from my memory. But going back this time was like going there for the first time – albeit with a lingering sense of deja vu that refused to be pinned down. Would I go back a third time? Definitely. Perhaps it’s a city that matures with age – my age.

 

 

 

 

Alifakovac Cemetery Sarajevo

Some people are good at spotting celebrities; others are good at spotting bargains. Me? I can spot a cemetery from miles away. And in a city I’ve never been to, wandering through a local cemetery is high of my list of things to do. Walking alongside the Miljacka River in Sarajevo, surrounded by the Dinaric Alps, I happened to glance up and spot the Alifakovac Cemetery high on the hillside, nestled amidst the houses of Stari Grad. When I tried to find out more about it, I discovered that the neighbouring houses, built long after the cemetery itself first opened its grounds,  were built in a way that wouldn’t block each other’s view and sunlight.  Those city planners should clone themselves and outsource their talent to the rest of the world. Read more

Not too long ago, some friends of mine in Ireland – aka ‘de wimmen’ – told me that it would be pointless my going to France with them as I neither drank wine nor ate olives. I was a tad peeved at this but not put out enough to do anything about it. I was happy with the odd gin and tonic and the occasional pint of cider on a hot day. Wine was way too pretentious for me.

The age of innocence

Sometime later, I was in a pub in Oxford with a mate of mine who had recently returned from a trip to New Zealand. He had ‘discovered’ wine and was full of interesting snippets. For instance, did you know that the first vines were planted in New Zealand by a missionary named Samuel Marsden in the north of the North Island in 1819, but that the World Atlas of Wine in 1970 doesn’t even mention New Zealand? Well, now you do! Anyway, according to my mate, the Montana Sauvignon Blanc was as close as you can get to liquid perfection. So, putting personal preferences aside, I indulged him and tried it. Just a glass. That particular combination of green grassy notes and ripe tropical fruit mellowed me.  I enjoyed it. And what’s more, it was now just a matter of downing an olive or two, and I’d earn my place on the ferry to France.

The thin red line

This new-found sophistication – oh no, dahling, I’m not a Chardonnay girl – left me breathless and eager to venture further afield. I began to winter my way around the world of white wine, with an occasional summertime dip into a chilled Rosé. Thankfully I realized early on that I was in little danger of losing my fortune to the champagne gods as I’d rather an Italian Prosecco, a Hungarian Pezsgo or Spanish Cava any day of the week, especially on Sundays! And to those who say that it’s a wine’s duty to be red, I have no answer. The red-wine smell wafting from an open bag of wine gums turns my stomach and even the promise of a thimbleful of the 1945 Chateau Mouton-Rothschild Jeroboam – a bottle of which sold at a Christie’s auction in 1997 for more than $100,000 – wouldn’t entice me from my knitting on a Friday night!

After a while though, I began to notice something peculiar. I actually take on the personality of the wine I’m drinking and become even more susceptible than usual to word association. Give me a glass or two of a Chilean Sauvignon from the Casablanca Valley and, like Bergman’s Isla Lund, I find myself crying dramatically to the nearest Bogart: Kiss me. Kiss me as if it were the last time. Now in a crowded club in Budapest, this may be no bad thing, but not when you’re at a reception for a missionary priest just back from Santiago…

A glass or two of the Spanish Marqués de Riscal and I’m positively dangerous. Hands flailing dramatically like a real-life toreros, I’m liable to punch-uate each sentence quite forcibly, which is all well and good if my listeners are wearing gumshields rather than hopeful smiles. The last poor unfortunate to risk a bottle of Riscal with me is still wondering what hit him…

Being Irish, I’m allowed a little poetic license. We need little encouragement to tell a story, but a glass or two of the Italian Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi will literally have me saying mass. It’s as if I split in two: one part of me can hear the other half tell the stories and just sits back and laughs, all the while sipping. Sometime I really amaze myself. Convincing some Canadian sailors from the HMS Iroquois that I was a novice nun had me rooting in my purse for my rosary beads…

A dark horse

But it’s the white wine from the Hungarian pince Nyakas that has been my undoing.  I just have to see the head of that black horse to feel the stirrings of invincibility that will only later be reined in by insecurities. I’ve said before that Budapest has a peculiar energy to it – an energy that seems to make anything possible. There is a life bubbling beneath the surface of this city that emerges every now and then to push you just a little bit further than you’d thought possible. Hopes and dreams manifest themselves in thoughts and actions. Couple that sense of power with a glass or two of a Nyakas Pinot Grigio and I’m capable of doing or saying just about anything. Which is why I’m sitting here, munching olives, trying to decipher the illegible note I made in my diary last night – did I really book a ferry to France?

First published in the Budapest Times 26 April 2010