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I went to bed one night this week, planning a round-the-world trip to celebrate a big birthday later this year. I was imagining where I might go, who I might visit, what I might do. I fell asleep trying to figure out how long I could reasonably take off work or how much work I could do when travelling.

I awoke up to hear that Brussels had been bombed. The airport. The metro. Brussels? Brussels! Brussels?! The core of the European Union. The city from which the EU is governed. A city that many of my diplomat friends have called home and many others still call home.

I’m left wondering why I’m so surprised.

Istanbul, a city I’ve visited just once, but one that was high on my list of places to go back to, has seen a slew of attacks in recent months. Streets I walked on. Cafés I passed by. Corners on which I stood breathing in the city. Blown up. Gone. Perhaps amongst the dead and wounded are people I met in passing. I’ll never know.

Paris, a city I reconnected with last year, another city high on my list of places to go back to, has also been a victim of the terrorism that’s plaguing the world. Could I ever watch a football game or go to a music venue there without wondering what if? I’m not sure.

brusselsAnd now Brussels. I’ve been there a number of times. I prefer their chocolate truffles to their beer. As I write, the casualty count has hit the hundred mark and the metro is set to reopen. The airport? That’s another story.

French physicist and Nobel Prize winner Marie Curie said once that nothing in life is to be feared; it is only to be understood. I grew up with the IRA and learned from an early age that terrorists win by changing how we live our lives, by instilling fear, by inducing paranoia.  I thought I understood enough not to be afraid, not to change, not to fear. Now, I’m not sure.

I used to take comfort in the fact that a fortune teller told me once that I’d live until I was 87. Have at it lads, I thought. I’m invincible for a few years yet. But then they never said what sort of life it would be. Terrorist attacks leave more than death and destruction in their wake. Hearts and souls are irreparably damaged. Children grow up far too quickly. Parents grow old far too soon. And the ugly seeds of distrust are sown. Yes, fear makes strangers of people who would be friends (a nod to actress Shirley MacLaine there).

Later, as the news from Belgium flooded the Net, I checked out Budapest, using the metro, the tram, the bus. And everywhere I saw the same thing. Crowds of tourists and locals alike going about their business but now under the watchful eye of pairs of armed police and soldiers strategically positioned on street corners, in metro stations, by tram stops. I felt a modicum of safety at this rapid response, but know in my heart of hearts that if IS wants to find a way, it will. Sky News reported one IS Commander quoted in an online Islamist magazine as saying: My advice is to stop looking for specific targets, hit everyone and everything. And that would appear to be their MO. I doubt I will ever understand what drives them. Or what makes it okay in their eyes to cut short the lives of random strangers. I doubt I will ever believe in any cause enough to knowingly and willingly terrorise those who don’t.

And while I might be more vigilant as I travel, I will still go. Because, more than anything else, I fear fear itself. I do not want to be afraid.

First published in the Budapest Times 25 March 2016

Way back in 2001, when the events of 9/11 rocked the world, I was living in a small Alaskan town of about 4000 people, a microcosm of American society. I saw how suspicions prevailed. How the word choice of seemingly intelligent colleagues broadened to include pejorative terms like rag-heads. How the immediate reaction was to shore up and dig in, to close borders, and keep America for Americans. Fast forward and this is Europe today.

I’d grown up in an Ireland where bombs were regular occurrences and being a terrorist was a job that came with and without a uniform. I’d been taught from an early age that if their actions changed how I lived my life, they’d won. I remember writing to the top ranks of the company I worked for, explaining how curtailing flights, changing work patterns, and modifying company behaviour was encouraging the very change in behavior that would give the terrorists their win. I never received a reply.

Bombs, loss of life, man’s inhumanity to man – none of it was new. America was no stranger to terrorism back then. The Oklahoma bombing was proof of that. But, as was explained to me back then, McVeigh et al. were home-grown. The 9/11 perpetrators were different. They had breached the border, broken through the defence. America was no longer a safe place in which to live.

RWB4The day before the Paris bombings, many lives were lost in Beirut. I saw little, if any media coverage. And then Paris happened. And the world became red, white, and blue. I wondered aloud when we had become so selective in our condemnation, in our reactions, with our sympathy. And this was one answer I received:  ‘This is on our patch. What they do at home [i.e., Beirut], that’s their business. But when they come into our back yard, and kill us – that’s different.’

RWB3What happened in Paris, and in Beirut, are atrocities. ISIS, in claiming the action as their own, will continue to foment anger and terror. Reports are already circulating that they have infiltrated refugees fleeing to Europe with 4000 militants, armed and ready to kill. Who knows if it’s true. Their aim would appear to be to split the world in two. To change how we live our lives. To turn us into Muslim-hating citizens who live in fear. And I do live in fear … fear that they will succeed.

Two centuries ago, politicians were citing eternal vigilance as the price of liberty. Today, we want our governments to protect us. Yet when they mention surveillance and accessing social media in order to track these terrorists, we cling feverishly to our privacy and cry foul on human rights. We want our security organisations to filter out the bad guys but when we’re held up at airport security, we moan about the inconvenience. Can we have it all? I wonder.

Are those branded ‘conspiracy theorists’ right? Is this nothing but a corporate war for profit and power being financed by the West using others as puppets to do their dirty work? Is it an excuse for countries like Hungary to put armed police on the streets to further agitate the masses and shut their borders to those in need? Is it about religion and false ideologies?  I don’t know.
RWBWhat I do know is that I have a choice. I can choose to live in fear. I can choose to treat each Muslim I meet as a potential terrorist. I can choose to join those who are damning the millions fleeing ISIS-strongholds like Syria because one bomber got through the net. Or I can refuse to hate. I can have faith in human decency and hold fast to the belief that good will triumph over evil. It’s my choice. It begins with me.

First published in the Budapest Times 20 November 2015

In times when the Catholic Church in particular, and religious institutions in general, are receiving a bashing, it is nice to see that some churches are still attracting young people in their droves, to celebrate life in their own inimitable way. Yes, they might never darken the doors of the church itself, but they gather in their hundreds outside on the steps to sing and celebrate. They come from many different countries and mix and mingle in the shadow of one of the world’s most famous churches. Everyone welcome. Everyone accepted.

IMG_6378 (800x600)IMG_6388 (800x600)This is what happens each evening on the steps of the Sacre Coeur in Paris. Hundreds gather to sit on the steps and listen to impromptu concerts as enterprising buskers tout their CDs in the wake of their live performances. Hawkers sell bottles of Heineken at €5 a throw, still cold, despite the heat. There are no deals – perhaps they are all agents for a monopoly, or perhaps they have agreed amongst themselves, made a pact to get the most out of those who have forgotten that BYOB is de rigeur for this particular party.

IMG_6413 (800x600)Lots of people are drinking and yet no one is drunk. Perhaps this has something to do with the Cathedral looming in the background, banners hanging from its portals declaring that it has been open every day for 125 years. An amazing feat, given that I’ve often been hard pushed in Ireland and Hungary to find a church open mid-week.

Situated in Montmartre (the Mount of Martyrs), where worshiping of some sort or other has been going on since the Druids, the Sacre Couer dates back to the end of the nineteenth century. It’s a stunning piece of architecture that came into being as a result of a promise. Back in 1870, when France and Germany were at war (Germany won and partially occupied France as a result), two men – Alexandre Legentil and Hubert Rohault de Fleury – saw France’s troubles not as political but as spiritual. Their idea was to build a church dedicated to the Sacred Heart in reparation. So they did. And it’s still there.

IMG_6425 (800x598)As the evening draws on, the lights in Paris switch on, one by one, gradually lighting up the city below. It’s a show not to be missed, free for all to see, and so compelling that many come back again, and again. The atmosphere is electric. It’s what church and religion should be – and sadly are not.

IMG_6418 (800x600)The only anomaly are the three security agents on patrol, dressed in combat fatigues, touting what guns that I imagine AK47s to look like. They walk in circles, constantly scouting 360 degrees, fingers on the triggers, ready for whatever comes their way. I wondered briefly whether this was a reaction to the recent terrorist attacks or whether it’s always been this way. I have no way of knowing. I would hope it’s reactionary and given time, will no longer be necessary. But perhaps, that too, is a sign of changing times.

This week, a week where patience (a limited commodity in my world on a good day) was tried and tested, where frustrations at my own inabilities ran high, and where self-berating was the order of the day, I’m glad of this memory. It was a lovely evening, on a lovely weekend, a weekend when I got to know Paris a little better and was big enough to admit that I was wrong about her.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

You look at me and what do you first notice? My size? My shape? The colour of my eyes? My glasses? My hair? My attitude? The size of my ears? How I’m dressed? What you see is pretty much the finished product. Yes, superficially I might decide to go blonde again, or pile back on the pounds, but the essence of me will still be recognisable.

Think of what a sculptor sees when he looks at a block of granite or marble.  To the untrained eye, it’s a block of stone. To them, though, it has form, shape, and essence, all of which they need to bring to the surface so that other, less-trained eyes, can see them too.

In hindsight, my rather tame reaction to seeing one of the world’s most acclaimed masterpieces might well have stemmed from the fact that I’d spent the previous few hours touring the Musée Rodin on the other side of the Seine. I’ve always been a great fan of his, and number The Kiss as one of my all-time favourite statues. One day, when I have money, I’ll have a copy in my living room that I can enjoy every day. Right now, I’m settling for a framed poster from the gift shop.

IMG_6709 (600x800)Rodin himself wasn’t all that impressed by it, calling it a ‘huge knick-knack’, but there we differ. I was taken with it the first time I saw a copy and could look at it for hours.

The Kiss originally represented Paolo and Francesca, two characters borrowed, once again, from Dante’s Divine Comedy: slain by Francesca’s husband who surprised them as they exchanged their first kiss, the two lovers were condemned to wander eternally through Hell.

The museum was undergoing renovations so I’m hoping that’s why it was stuck in a corner that didn’t do it justice. I’d hate to think that everyone else sees it as a knick-knack, too.

IMG_6674 (600x800)Out in the grounds of the Musée Rodin, along with a series of other individual pieces, many of which end up on the famous Gates of Hell, is the even more famous of Rodin’s creations –  The Thinker. He originally had the poet Dante in mind, but the statue apparently evolved to represent all poets and creators. Just the male ones, obviously. It’s a curious piece to see up close and in person. I’d never realised that the muscle detail was so obvious and in a certain light, it didn’t take much imagination to fancy he was real.

IMG_6684 (800x600)IMG_6687 (800x600)The detail in each bronze sculpture was extraordinary. The day was wet and overcast. It was raining. The ground was muddy and the visitors few in number. Perhaps that added to the eeriness of the place, a setting that would, I’m sure, be so much different on a bright, warm, summer’s day. But this seemed more appropriate somehow.

IMG_6689 (593x800) IMG_6691Each statute took us one step closer to seeing the Gates of Hell, the ultimate collection of over 200 pieces that Rodin created separately, a collection which was not cast in bronze until after his death. He never saw for himself what IMG_6694 (800x600)so many enjoy today.  It’s stunningly grotesque. There is a tangible pressure from those who simply come to take its photo to cut your scrutiny short – to get out of the way. Best ignore it. Take time to digest, to explore, to see, and despite the damp cold, to feel the heat from the flames of hell.

Rodin began drawing at the tender age of 10. And although he had talent,  the École des Beaux-Arts, a prestigious Parisian art school, refused him admission three times. He spent a couple of decades as a decorative brick-layer, and it wasn’t until he was in his forties that he started his artistic work.There’s hope for me yet.

IMG_6678 (600x800)He considered his best piece to be a statue of Honoré de Balzac, which he described as ‘the result of a lifetime, the very pivot of [his] aesthetic’. He eschewed the idea of a poet/writer in contemporary dress, quill poised over paper, and took the more ballsy approach of cloaking Balzac and his belly in the dressing gown he usually wore while writing. A minor uproar ensued when the piece was unveiled in 1898 at the Salon. It was rejected by the commissioning body who said that it ‘regrets to have the duty to protest against the rough model exhibited at the Salon by M. Rodin, which it refuses to recognize as the statue of Balzac.’ Admittedly, it didn’t do a whole helluva lot for me either, but then again, me and Balzac aren’t on a nodding acquaintance.

Still though, I have to admire Rodin’s courage to challenge society and convention, to stay true to his convictions, and to stand by the product of his beliefs. In a week that has been thought-provoking and somewhat life-altering, I’m grateful to have Auguste Rodin as an inspiration – late bloomers are beacons of hope on what at times might seem a pretty flat horizon. And his work is a strong reminder that inside the ordinary lies something special.

If you’re in Paris, Musée Rodin is worth a visit.

 

 

Louvre Paris

It’s not been long enough, I hear you cry. And yet 72 hours is ample time when you’re old enough know what you want and what you don’t want from life. Okay – so you might blur the edges a little on occasion, but there comes an age when you’re quick enough to recognise what you like and what you don’t.

Paris, France Jardin des TuileriesParis, France Jardin des TuileriesParis, France Jardin des TuileriesParis, France Jardin des Tuileries

And so it was with Paris. The distaste I’ve been carrying around for years has been replaced by a healthy respect. And while I doubt very much if I could live there, there are elements of the city that are wonderful. The huge expanses of green areas such as Jardin des Tuileries where you can borrow a sun chair (for free) and sit next to the fountain contemplating the meaning of life or simply debating whether or not to have an ice-cream. Paris seems to be in a constant state of thought. There’s a seriousness about the place that implies lots of deep thinking. It’s not pessimistic. It’s not depressive. It’s not moody. It’s more like a sobriety that speaks of sombre intent. As if the weight of the world rests on its shoulders. And given such responsibility (quite possibly a figment of my imagination) Jardin des Tuileries is a welcome respite. It’s a heady place where life-changing decisions might come easy and the mania of city living is kept at bay. I was particularly impressed with the sculptures, the lily ponds, and the carousel and would highly recommend it as a place to pass an hour or three for some excellent people watching.

Paris France LouvreParis France Louvre

I was less impressed with the queues, long lines of people snaking towards the entrance to anywhere that is listed in the guidebooks. I’ve long since lost what patience is needed to wait in line for anything other than something that’s on my bucket list. But I braved the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa. I’d been told that it was distinctly underwhelming, and I needed to see for myself. The glass pyramid that is now an entryway and billed as one of the city’s best-loved modern landmarks, didn’t quite do it for me. (Mind you, it is impressive how it inverts.) The juxtaposition of new and old is something I’ve never quite got my head around, which is strange for someone who counts teens and nonagenarians amongst her friends.

Paris France Louvre Mona Lisa

Anyway, the queue moved quickly and in about 30 minutes we were inside, alongside thousands of others. And in sharp contrast to the orderly lines outside, the Mona Lisa herself looked calmly down on sheer bedlam. It was a free for all. A mêlée, as the French might say. Jostling, pushing, heaving, elbowing, the most improper behaviour imaginable – it was all visible. And what was everyone doing? Taking selfies. I ask you. I don’t think I saw one person, other than an intense 12-year-old stop and actually look at the painting itself.

Lisa Gherardini Giocondo (did you know that was her real name?) was about 25 when she posed for Leonardo, at the bequest (and expense) of her husband. The painting began its life as My Lady Lisa (Mia Donna Lisa) and was soon abridged to Monna Lisa before the typo was introduced making it the Mona Lisa that six million or so people visit every year. The painting is priceless so it’s not insured! It was stolen back in 1911, when Vincenzo Peruggia, a museum employee, smuggled it out under his smock. She turned up two years later when he tried to sell the painting in Florence. She’s sweet. I’m glad I got to see her up close and personal. But my living room can live without the gal.

The Winged Victory of Samothrace Paris France LouvreParis France Louvre

I was more impressed with The Winged Victory of Samothrace as viewing was a sight more comfortable. And I was very taken with the ceilings. But truth be told, there were far too many people in the building for it to be enjoyable. Perhaps if I had a background in art history, or was an artist or a sculptor myself, I might have been able to quell the rising panic that such crowds induce. But I haven’t and I’m not. I am glad I went though. Now I no longer have to wonder and as I had no great expectations to begin with, I wasn’t disappointed. Just a tad underwhelmed.

 

 

These last two days have been awash with emails and phone calls and texts and Facebook messages in an attempt to take advantage of Wizz Air’s 20% discount on all flights and flight+hotel packages out of Budapest. Had they (Wizz) not emailed me and told me that this offer was available, I’d have been none the wiser and might have been somewhat more productive than I have been in the last 48 hours.

I had my heart set on five days in Cyprus but that wasn’t to be. Those I asked weren’t free or had been there before and were in no rush to go back or couldn’t give the immediate commitment I needed. Cluj was another option – it’s high on my list for 2015 – but again, there was little interest out there. Sofia, too.

naplesA chance email about something completely unrelated opened up a conversation with one friend on travel. Negotiations started. Cities were considered and discounted. We needed somewhere neither of us had been before so we settled on Naples. The fact that I’m going to Italy for a week in April was neither here nor there. Flights were booked. Advantage was taken of the 20% discount, and I’m already scheduling my carb days to allow copious slices of pizza. Mission accomplished. Need to travel satisfied.

parisThen last night, I ran into another friend who was having a similar itch to go somewhere new. Anywhere. Just for a weekend. The ‘I couldn’t possibly justify another trip in March’ crossed my mind but was so fleeting it didn’t gain any traction. I remembered a hotel voucher I had for the K&K hotel group and thought of Paris. They’ve never been. I’ve been but years ago  and I didn’t like it. I’ve been promising it a second try for decades.  So we’re booked.

I blame it all on the Wizz Air marketing department. It’s their fault. What can I say? Some women spend their money on designer shoes and handbags – I prefer to spend mine on airplane seats and hotel rooms – when they’re on sale, of course. Life is too short to stay in one place. And as Robert Louis Stevenson supposedly said: I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.

When I was seven, my twenty-year-old cousin was old, which made my forty-year-old aunt very old and my grandmother positively ancient. Age was relative – relative to me. If I were to apply this same logic today, I’d have just passed the ‘very old’ mark and would be making slow but steady progress towards antiquity.

I have an inbuilt ‘carbon-dating’ mechanism when it comes to putting an age on something, or someone. It doesn’t work very well; I’m rarely right. But that doesn’t stop me from attempting to date stamp people, places, and things. I grew up with expressions that lent credence and respect to the aging process and helped somehow to give register to age:  as old as Methuselah, as old as the hills, as old as humanity. The fact that I didn’t know who Methuselah was, or which hills, or when humanity actually began was irrelevant. These expressions gave voice to the sentiment that age could be referenced; it could be put into context without having to know the exact ‘when’.

Age is relative

The concept of age fascinates me, not so much as a labelling device but more as a testimony to endurance. In today’s throw-away society, there’s something very comforting in knowing that some things have been around…well, forever. They have a fixed place in our collective memory, and indeed in the memories of all those who have gone before us.

On my register, Hinduism is the oldest religion; Damascus is the oldest city; and wrestling is the oldest sport. Ireland has the oldest known fields in the world (the céide fields which come complete with original stone walls); Hungary has the second oldest metro system; and Oxford, the third oldest university. It wasn’t until I moved to the USA that I fully appreciated the newness of old. I lived in Longview, Washington, a city the same age as Northern Ireland. The idea of someone planning and building a city as recently as 1921 surprised me. I visited a plantation house in South Carolina with furniture roped off to preserve it because it was so old; that same furniture would have looked at home in my grandmother’s sitting room.

Words like ‘vintage’ and ‘antique’ hold a certain appeal for me. The Hungarian word antikvárium trips off the tongue with the same sprightliness as the English word antiquarian, despite there being a world of difference between second-hand and antique.

Standing the test of time

I’m used to old. I like old. And some days, I feel old. And yet, despite my penchant for all things aged, my first visit to the megalithic Mnajdra temples in Malta left me strangely unmoved. It was perhaps their crudity: post and lintel construction with large slabs of limestone? Yep, about as interesting as a pile of rocks in a field. Ditto with Ħaġar Qim. I learned something new about myself. ‘Old’ has to go hand in hand with ‘interesting’ – age for age’s sake just doesn’t cut it anymore. So when a friend suggested visiting the hypogeum at Ħal-Saflieni, I wasn’t exactly chomping at the bit. Malta and her ruins just weren’t registering!

The hypogeum is an underground temple consisting of three floors with a series of interconnecting chambers, the most stunning of which is the ‘Holy of Holies’, a beautifully carved replica of a temple facade. Hewn from rock using stone hammers, chisels, flint blades, and antler picks nearly 5000 years ago, it is a true testament to patience and perserverance. It personifies the best of both words – old and interesting. When it was first discovered, back in 1902, the remains of over 7000 people were found deep in its chambers. But even more amazing still, it’s in the middle of the town of Paola, down a side street, beneath a row of houses!

Eyes to heaven

When I walk, I tend to look up, at gargoyles, at rooftops, at church steeples. But since my visit to the hypogeum, I’ve been thinking a little more about what I might be walking over. Little did I know that all those times I walked across the Charles Bridge in Prague I was actually walking on eggshells. Or that while strolling along Via Appia in Rome, a parallel world of catacombs snaked beneath my feet. Strolling through the old city of Mdina last week I was surprised to hear that there is an old Roman city lying underground.

It’s made me look at Budapest in a new light. So much of what I see in this city is above ground: spectacular buildings, contemporary graffiti, myriad statues. But what lies beneath? Underground? Is there a depth to this city, as is so often found in her people, that remains largely unexplored?

First published in the Budapest Times 27 February 2011