Dances and Dinners

Dances and Dinners

A week or two before I left for Europe in June, some Rockhampton friends wrote to me and asked how had I managed to travel so safely all these years … In my stupidity or arrogance or as a taunt to the gods, I replied that I had never had any major problems and that I had never been robbed or mugged or raped or tempted to buy fake Gaudi artefacts or Louis Vuitton sunglasses.

I knew I should not have written that email to them … as the gods are always listening and are always ready to trip up the heels of mortal man …

BCN street art

Street art, Barcelona

One night later that month I strolled from my Barcelona apartment down to the beach to join in the festivities for the eve of St John the Baptist day – bonfires on the beach, fireworks and barbecues in public squares – and had a lovely evening. Strolling back later that night through quiet but by no means deserted streets, I was feeling quite jolly. A young chap approached me with a merry “Hola!” and offered his hand for a high five. I high-fived him back and he hugged me and did some sort of knuckle-bashing routine and some complicated knee-tapping and ankle twisting stuff at which point I told him to bugger off … I walked on a few metres, put my hand back into my pocket and found that effortlessly the sod had relieved me of €20.00 from my left-front pocket. It took him, I guess, about ten seconds to see me, to size me up, to dance the dance with me, with the “hug” checking out rear pockets for wallets, and to steal the €20.00 from me.

He left my apartment keys and some loose change in the same pocket (fortunately my wallet and credit cards were all back at the apartment) and he did not pull a knife or anything to demand my watch or my camera … and the whole thing was so smoothly and slickly done that I actually burst out laughing … although I doubt I would have done so had he scored more.

A few days later as I was leaving a Metro station I heard a man calling, “Stop! You pickpocketed my wallet!” and chasing after a young woman who professed innocence. The man tried to search her on the railway platform – and not surprisingly she objected to his doing so. Other people called out for security guards … but I doubt the man had much chance of getting his wallet back as it had almost certainly been passed to a second or third person by that stage. I also saw a man stop by the baskets and bags placed by a tree by some Chinese people doing Tai Chi. He groped through the bags for a moment or two until one woman saw what was happening and screamed at him. He simply got on his bicycle and sped off – so I am not sure if he was successful in his theft or if the woman’s cries thwarted him in time.

I do love Barcelona and its beaches and its eating and drinking and so many other things (and am currently toying with the idea of spending a full year there in a year or two to experience its winters and its low seasons when there are not so many tourists and the beaches are not so welcoming and to experience a Catalan year) that to lose €20.00 (two glasses of wine and two tapas) is more or less nothing in a city that has a (justified) reputation as pickpocket capital of Europe.  I just hope that my experience that night is not the first of three things…

En route to Barcelona I spent three or so days in Frankfurt – not a terribly exciting place – but I had chosen it so I could fly in Thai Airways’ new A380.  My business class seat was very disappointing as it was too short when fully stretched out as a bed … but at least the “bed” was flat, unlike TG’s usual business class seats that sort of recline but do not become fully flat.  As I was not in first class I was not able to try the circular staircase and the free stand-up bar … but what the hell. Perhaps next time.

One day while in FRA I went the English Theatre and saw the two-hander Venus in Fur by David Ives: a very intensive ninety minutes or so of theatre and done quite well by the two actors Meghan Treadway and David Blackwell. I also went off to Wiesbaden – a lovely city about forty minutes by train from Frankfurt.  I have been there many times, as both Hutchins School and Prem have an education agent there who has sent students to both schools. I have gone there to say hello to the agents and the parents when I was responsible for international marketing for the two schools.  One of the attractions of Wiesbaden is its “baden” or “baths”:  it is an historic city that has been offering therapeutic mineral spring baths since Roman times.  On earlier visits I seemed always to be there on “Ladies’ Day” at the Kaiser Friedrich Therme – apparently the best baths in the city … but this time I was able to go when it was co-ed and the patrons of all ages and all sexes and all shapes and sizes waddled from bath to bath naked or clad in a loose bath towel, with the very elderly assisted by an attendant into the next “bad” or “bath”.

Gives a whole new slant to “Oh! Have I had a bad day today!”

The Kaiser Friedrich Therme opened in 1913 but was built on the site of earlier Roman baths, and is very relaxing with its series of hot, hotter, even hotter and freezing cold baths, herbal and normal saunas, a special room where you can lie in splendid isolation and watch an LED “sky” changing colour above you, a “Turkish” steam room where a Victorian-era machine comes into action every ten minutes or so, cranking a steel bucket of hot rocks out of a small oven and transferring the hot rocks into a tub of cold water to produce a disappointing amount of steam … but the theatre of the event is worth the wait!

Meanwhile, back in Barcelona, and apart from the pickpocketing (“Apart from that, Mrs Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?”), life went on its hectic way:  up at 8.30 or 9.30 or 10.30 or so, off for a slow jog / walk past Barcelona’s splendid Arc de Triomf and through the lovely Parc de la Ciutadella near my apartment, breakfast either at “home” or in one of the numerous cafes nearby, some Thai vocab sessions or a bit of reading, then off to the beach for a few hours, followed by a glass or two of wine and some tapas, a shower, dinner, sleep, off to the beach …

A friend in Munich had recommended a Barcelona champagne bar to me, as it is apparently a real feature of the town. It took me quite some time last year to find it as it has no name on the street, no signs outside, and inside there is just the Catalan word for “champagne” or cava: Xampanyeria. Well of course! Last year I did not have any cash on me when I found it but this year I did – so had a glass of xampanyeria and a snack or two … and can now report to Munich that I have found the secret drinking hole known only to every Time Out, Rough Guide and Lonely Planet reader in the world.

I spent two weeks in the same apartment as last year since its location was ideal and the price was OK – and the novels I left there were still on the shelf with an addition of Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope and Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories. The trees outside my tiny balcony had grown so that only a couple of apartments over the road could peer into mine. 2014 was the 300thanniversary of civil wars in Spain and there were fascinating displays giving details of key events of sieges etc that happened in my neighbourhood during that time.

CSH selp portarit

CSH self-portrait, MNAC

I enjoyed a non-beach day of visits to galleries including MNAC and the newish Museum European of Art Modern (MEAM) which featured a superb exhibition of Richard MacDonald’s sculptures, and museums and flea markets, and when I finally got back to the apartment I realised that my sore feet were the result of about seven hours of tramping here and there … so a strong G&T was well-earned!

On previous Barcelona visits I have taken a day or two to travel further abroad but the lure of the beach this time was too great and did not do so, instead returning every day but my museum day to the St Sebastian beach near the W Hotel, where I joined the circus of slim and slobby bodies of all hues and shapes and sizes and nationalities and dress or undress sunning themselves and swimming in the Mediterranean, with huge white motor cruisers, windsurfers and tiny noisy skidoos providing an ever-changing backdrop.

The modern prevalence of camera phones meant that former privacy disappeared – and so many people took “selfies” on their phones and photos of others as well. One day a couple of middle-aged Chinese tourists complete with floppy hats and umbrellas and shoes and socks strolled along the beach happily snapping away with no thought of personal space or privacy.

Much more aware of their surroundings are the young African men all along the footpaths of Barceloneta, as they keep their eyes out for the police as they try to sell tourists fake Ray Ban sunglasses displayed on sheets ready to be snapped up and tossed into a backpack when their mates further along the street warn them that the Mossos or Policia or Guardia Urbana are on their way. In previous years the same young men also offered “Louis Vuitton” and “Prada” handbags but it seems that the anti-pirating laws have caught up with them. Other African – and some Indian – men trundle through the streets with kidnapped shopping trolleys as they hunt through dumpsters and rubbish bins for scrap metal – a fine sort of recycling.

Some passing final thoughts on lovely Barcelona where every man and woman – and their innumerable dogs – seems to smoke non-stop. Posters liberally taped to shop walls near my apartment advertised a coming performance – although not actually giving performance dates! – of Tennessee Williams’ El Zoo de Vidre – which does not quite have the same ring as The Glass Menagerie. And later, in Panevezys (Lithuania), I saw advertising for another production of the same play – now called Stiklinis Zverynas, which has even less of a sting if you do not speak or read the local language.

Barcelona also seems to have got its graffiti artists to observe some pretty basic and eminently sensible rules. Unlike so many cities where the tag artists or other creative souls spray their work on any available surface, in Barcelona the only graffiti to be found is on the metal roll-down doors and old wooden doors closed over shop entrances. At night there is a stunning gallery of artists’ works – but at day all disappear when the blinds are rolled up and the doors folded back into the walls – and there is no damage to the historic stone walls. Great stuff!

BCN Blues poster

Barcelona Blues Festival poster

The twelfth annual blues festival also started after my departure – as did the whole Barcelona Summer Festival – so this visit was slim pickings for theatre and music. I had noticed some people with shirts labelled WOOF and saw a WOOF shop but did not manage to get back to see what was on offer – rather liked the idea of being a bit of a gay old dog! Every second man on the beach who happened to be wearing swimwear seemed to have locally-designed and produced ES-branded swimmers and I went to their shop to see what was what – but what was what was that the swimmers were outrageously expensive and far too young for me! So will have to stay with Speedos.

At BCN airport I was able to book luggage through to Riga but could not get my boarding pass until Frankfurt, where Air Baltic had hidden itself away in Terminal 2, necessitating kilometres of trudging here and there – and with no lounge access it was not been a very jolly three hours’ wait … but I killed some of the time by having my first sausage on this visit to Germany – a Hot Dog Käse XXL – a €6.10 hot dog, 28 cm long and served with cheese, ketchup and fried onions … and quite forgettable … before flying on to Riga in Latvia.

Ukraine and Crimea, Putin and Nina

It would be easy to classify the Baltic states I visited as home to babushkas with aprons tied resolutely over ample bosoms and more than ample bellies, headscarves wrapped around their grey hair, begging with paper cups outside churches, or trying to sell second-rate dresses in railway subways. This area may also be known for clusters of scruffy, drunken men, often battered and bruised and missing teeth, loitering by the entrances to supermarkets, outside cafés and bars and by railway stations arguing and prodding each other aggressively – or just staggering along footpaths shouting what I take to be obscenities against the world. It is an area of battered, shuttered and abandoned factories and apartment buildings – many of which were never finished. Many Lithuanian footpaths are dirty and irregular with cracked and missing paving stones. Graffiti covers many walls.

While all that is true enough it is a long way from being the whole picture. There was the teenager who stopped snogging his girlfriend long enough to ask, in perfect English, if he could assist with the luggage of a young nun sitting beside me on the train to Trakai. It is the hordes of (mainly young) people who brush aside one’s apologies for not speaking their language and then go out of their way to help a lost or helpless soul. It is a landlady (Nina) kind enough to load up the refrigerator with supplies before guests arrive at the hired apartment – and then to bring almost daily treats such as fresh cucumbers and tomatoes from her garden. It is the impressive new apartment buildings on city outskirts, it’s the lovingly restored mediaeval and 17th century buildings and the brand new double-decker electric trains and highly efficient public transport systems … and it is the handsome blonde and brunette and black-haired young men and women (who seem to be fine until the age of about 35 when suddenly they start turning into babushkas and old sots). And to be fair, these countries are still coming to terms with their “liberty” after decades of oppression by the Russians.

One woman I spoke to in Latvia said she was still very worried about Putin’s plans following his annexation of Crimea and the daily events in the Ukraine – just a few kilometres away. In Riga and Vilnius and elsewhere there are museums and monuments to the victims of the KGB, the Gestapo, the Cheka and all the others who ruled these areas until 1991. At the hands of the Russians or Germans, hundreds of thousands of people disappeared, were imprisoned, tortured or killed between 1941 and 1991 … yet menus, street signs and many other places, still offer information in Latvian / Lithuania, English … and Russian. Apart from the noisy gangs of American college kids whom you can hear coming before you see them (“Yeah, like, I was like stoked when I like saw that thing.”), many tourists seem to be Russians. I cannot understand why they are welcome.

But Australians (“Ah! Kengura!”) seem to be welcome enough, although getting used to 10.15 pm sunsets and 04.30 am sunrises is a little difficult in bedrooms that are not fitted with blackout curtains.

These are small countries with small populations. Latvia, for example, has just over two million people – a little smaller than Brisbane or Manchester and a little larger than Chiang Mai province. Riga, the capital, has just 700,000 people. The national and capital city populations are decreasing as more and more people leave to go back to Russia or to other East European states.

Staying on, however, are the buskers (piano accordions, saxophones, French horns, guitars, violins and singers) who were everywhere and actually gave a nice feel to the place. On cold grey wet days they were often the only glimmer of hope as the cold grey wet Soviet buildings seemed to loom menacingly over the cobbled streets – but on sunny days they were the chocolate sprinkles on a cappuccino of warm sandstone and cosy red brick buildings and brightly painted amber-coloured wooden houses. Amber itself is an important product of the area – as are goats’ wool bed socks! – and it can be bought at numerous street side stalls or in more glamorous jewellery shops. In Ausros Vartu Street in Vilnius there is a modern art shop where amber is used in stunning modern sculptures. In the same street there are, it seems, about forty Baroque wedding-cake churches, one or two of which I popped into: on any day I can take in only so many gilded altar pieces, chubby cherubs and multi-coloured marble columns.

I mentioned declining population statistics. I think I know the reason for the decline: they ALL have gone to Trakai. I visited a few small towns in each country – either for a day visit or for a couple of days – and in the small Lithuanian town of Trakai is an island with a superb castle (although its reconstruction is just too good). When I visited it, and although it was a cold and very wet day, the number of tourists (Latvian, Russian, Lithuanian – and Australian) made Disney Land on a public holiday look deserted. So perhaps the population drain from the cities is all to Trakai. Perhaps if we look in the dungeons?

Candles, Cesis Castle

Cesis Castle by candlelight

Actually, at the superb little Latvian town of Cesis is another castle – more sympathetically restored – where visitors can descend a steep iron ladder to the dungeons and no doubt count the scratches in the stone walls. I made it halfway down before my claustrophobia got the better of me!

To visit the western tower of this same castle, visitors are given candle lanterns, as there are no electric lights – just steep, narrow, black winding staircases in the tower walls, with visitors clambering up and down the worn stairs clutching guttering candles. Lovely effect.

I also visited the town of Vecaki – about forty minutes northwest from Riga. This is a sleepy little coastal town that seems deserted most of the time – until the train comes in. There’s an old saying that something will – or will not – happen when your ship comes in. At Vecaki the streets are empty until the trains arrive. When the trains come in, invading hordes descend and walk the kilometre or so to the wide sandy beach fronting the Gulf of Riga and the Baltic Sea. A few hundred metres further north is an official nudist beach with the usual assortment of shapes and sizes and ages. Nice sand – but to swim in the cold lapsang souchong-coloured waters, intrepid bathers must wade out at least a hundred metres before the ocean is deep enough to swim in.

Still hunting for a place where I could have a good swim, I visited Aqua Park – a huge aquatic entertainment park in the northern suburbs of Vilnius. The park had plenty of places to swim or paddle or luxuriate, but strangely enough no pool for swimming laps. There were Jacuzzis all over the place, a wave pool, “streams” for sedately floating along on rubber tubes, various herbal steam baths with different flavoured steams, sundry saunas and even an ice cave with fresh snow every twenty minutes allowing masochists – and me – to cool down when everything else got a bit too hot.

There were also many water slides including a terrifyingly fast one I did once only.

I am not sure if the noise I heard was the breaking of the sound barrier … or me screaming as I plummeted down the claustrophobic orange-tinted tube, feet kicking up plumes of spray so I could not see anything and ending in the final plunge pool with my swimwear somewhere up under my armpits. Six-year-old kids clamoured their fathers to let them, “Do it again! Do it again!” Sixty-five-year-olds decided that once was quite enough.

On the sun deck there were about two sun loungers for every five people. If anyone got up to scratch an awkward itch, there was a migration of hopefuls galloping towards what they hoped was then a vacant lounger … only to mutter vulgar imprecations when the “owner” blithely resumed his or her seat. I could see why – and despite such vigorous exercise as the chasing of vacant sun loungers – the locals seem to lose their elasticity after the age of 35: everyone was drinking endless beers and snacking on French Fries or on deep-fried black bread strips dunked in full-fat mayonnaise. And smoking. The famous Michelin man would be considered quite svelte … compared to the tubbies waddling around naked at Baltic nudist beaches … or semi-clad (1/16thclad?) at the aquatic centre dressed in protesting bikinis or screaming strained Speedos trying to reverse Newton’s laws of gravity to prevent public “wardrobe errors” with flabby bits hanging out and tempting passing seagulls.

Music is everywhere. In Riga I attended a huge “Born in Riga” concert in the grounds of the national opera house. All performers – opera singers, tango dancers, percussionists etc – were Riga natives and the concert was interspersed by video message from other Rigans (sounds like people from some Star Wars kingdom) including dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov. There was also a free big band concert in a park near the Orthodox cathedral, the usual buskers everywhere, and while strolling one Sunday in Vilnius I went into one of the scores and scores of churches in that town and happened across a lovely little concert for organ, violin and soprano. The violinist was OK, but the organist and singer were excellent and the church’s acoustics superb. The concert ended with César Franck’s Panis Angelicus.

In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night Orsino asked if music was the food of love. As well as enjoying the music everywhere, I loved the food in Latvia and Lithuania. I became an expert in potato pancakes (aka rösti) with smoked salmon and sour cream (and occasionally with fresh berries), which I enjoyed many times as a snack or on one occasion as a whole meal: the waitress cautioned me when I ordered the pancakes and also a chicken main dish, saying that people rarely finished the first dish. She was right! There are various black breads and seedy breads, Karaim kybyns (pastry stuffed with different meats or vegetables and rather like Cornish pasties), fish of all sorts excepted salted herrings, and of course lots of pork and duck dishes – and one night even a pretty good pizza …

Transport is excellent within the cities but between cities not so good. One brochure I read said, “At least the communists knew how to run the trains.” To get from Riga to Vilnius – only a couple hundred kilometres – I had to take two buses, as there is no direct rail link. To get from Vilnius to Warsaw (390 km) I had a choice of eleven hours on a bus or a flight at a cost of EUR 260 for the one-hour flight – exactly the same price for the four-hour return journey between Frankfurt – Barcelona – Frankfurt. Hmm.

Golf carts and cabriolets

Travelling from Lithuania to Poland and beyond is a surprising jump. It is surprising how different the countries are, despite being neighbours: Poland seemed to be prosperous, healthy and on the go – despite the wartime ravages it, too, had suffered.

Before arriving in this country I tried to remember everything I knew – or thought I knew – about Poland. Not much, really. Chopin was born there and a former Prime Minister – Paderewski? – was a famous Chopin pianist. Lech Walensa was an active trade unionist in the shipyards of Gdansk. Gershwin wrote a piece of music called the Warsaw Concerto. And the flag was red and white stripes a bit like Latvia’s … and Hitler invited himself to take over the country in 1939.

Like the countries I visited earlier, Poland suffered terribly during the war, with even more hundreds of thousands executed, murdered or exiled, and with most of Warsaw bombed or systematically dynamited. In post-war reconstruction, the Poles got a little revenge. The Nazis had used Pawiak prison as a concentration camp but dynamited it and all records just before the end of the war. Today the remaining basement houses an excellent museum to the atrocities of war. The Warsaw Uprising museum is another important and moving reminder of human struggle and pointless deaths and political ineptitude.

Unlike some of the other cities I recently visited, whose sizes were manageable, Warsaw is a huge place with – according to the in-house television programmes – a population of two million, 500 km of tramways, three million visitors each year and thirty theatres including the Warsaw Chamber Opera Theatre – which I visited, trying to get a ticket for a performance of The Magic Flute.

The caretaker told me to go somewhere else at 3.30 pm but I finally roused a woman in the ticket office who could not find my ticket (booked the previous night via Internet) and she also told me to go to the open-air courtyard of King Jan lll’s palace, quite some distance south of the city, where the opera was to be presented.

Magic Flute

Magic Flute – and projected scenery

The Magic Flute is not one of my favourites but I took a taxi, as I was not sure of public transport, and went there. The ticket was ready, the tiered seating was ready, the singers could be heard warbling and the orchestra was tuning … and thunder was rumbling. A few minutes before the opera was due to start (9.00 pm) a forest of umbrellas opened against the downpour, with trickles off neighbours’ brollies slipping under mine and down my neck. About forty-five minutes later it stopped raining and the performance started.

As I said, this is not my favourite opera … and this production reminded me of a memorably bad production of King Kong I saw in Melbourne last year. There, too, the staging overpowered the actors. The courtyard of the palace was quite pretty in daylight, built on a majestic scale of course for his majesty, but once the technicians got going, the singers – lovely voices all – were soon all but forgotten while projected scenery provided us with the dubious spectacle of birds fluttering up and down (reminding me of the superb scene in Hitchcock’s The Birds – and quite appropriate in that context but not this one), creepers snaking up and down real and projected columns, moving lights and laser beams zapping through clouds of smoke, and mystic Masonic symbols splattered all over the side walls of the courtyard so we were surrounded and overwhelmed by the admittedly quite spectacular special effects.

The performance was to be just under three hours long and after the delayed start, the first act finished about 10.45 pm. I was concerned about finding buses or taxis or any transport at 1.00 am so I left – as I did last year from King Kong long before the last special effect … so I do not know if there were pyrotechnics or magic fountains built into the second act of either production. Pity, really, as the singing and orchestra were really very good in both cases.

A traditional Jewish Klezmer concert in a former synagogue, and a classic chamber orchestra concert in the church of Pete ‘n’ Paul (Saints Peter and Paul) in Krakow were also very good – but had no special effects. Really – these people must try harder! I am sure Vivaldi’s Four Seasons would have been enhanced by a bit of artificial snow blown through the nave of the church, and a few fireworks blasted from the altar would have helped Handel’s little piece.

I was surprised that I enjoyed Warsaw as much as I did – and don’t know why I was surprised. Krakow too is a delightful city but it is a city on a more accessible scale. Like Warsaw it has a huge network of trams or streetcars (although I do not know how many kilometres of lines!) and fleets of golf carts whisking visitors to attractions including Schindler’s Factory – made famous by Tom Keneally’s book Schindler’s Arc and by Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List. There are also stately plumed and be-ribboned horses trotting along cobble-stoned streets with yet more visitors sitting sedately in the glorious white carriages. Krakow Old Town and the grounds of Wawel Castle are really worth visiting, and it was great to spend several days exploring centuries-old universities and churches and markets, wandering the ancient streets and trying its restaurants tucked away in basements or in tiny interior courtyards … and of course on footpaths.

One day I had a late lunch on the terrace of a restaurant in the Old Town. A gentle breeze had sprung up while I was finishing my meal and when the waitress arrived to present my bill in a tidy little wicker basket, the breeze toppled the basket, seized the bill and whisked it away like Frosty the Snowman’s hat. Tumbling and rolling and fluttering out the restaurant’s terrace gate, the slip of paper gambolled over the footpath and down the street. The waitress chased it, dodging between the giant legs and hooves of the enormous great horses pulling carriages stuffed with middle-class tourist families, and ducking between the bell-ringing streetcars (none named “Desire”) rattling along Ulica Dominikanska. Camera-snapping Chinese tourists tried to catch the elusive bit of paper and energetic foot-stamping Swedes tried to slow its progress with timely stamps of sandal-clad feet. In the restaurant we were cheering both the waitress and the fugitive slip of paper that eventually realised that enough was enough and gave up the Steve McQueen great escape at the foot of a mediaeval wall. The waitress returned to the restaurant bearing aloft the bill as if it was a victorious athlete’s laurel wreath.

A day or two later I joined other gangs of camera-snapping Chinese and foot-stamping Swedes and many others to queue up and then to clump down 387 wooden steps in a vertical shaft carved in a rock salt cave. Why? To visit a salt mine. Of course. When one has eaten and explored and sipped fine wines what else is there to do? The Wieliczka salt mine is a UNESCO World Heritage site half an hour’s drive from Krakow and a place visited by many people. Our (compulsory) tour guide quipped probably not for the first time, “The walls look like stone, but they are solid salt. If you want to try, you can lick the wall to taste the salt … but we have over one million visitors every year so there are not too many places left that are still un-licked.”

The three-hour tour goes through huge caverns carved over the centuries by the salt miners, along old horse-drawn railway lines in narrow shafts, past an underground health spa, a cathedral and several chapels with quite stunning chandeliers, statues and altars all carved from salt (the chairs were not) and even a salt statue of Poland’s most famous old boy – Karol Jozef Wojtyla – better known as Pope John Paul ll. Perhaps not surprisingly, there is a real JP cult in this part of the world with streets and churches and roads and all sorts of things named after him, but the salt mines also have statues of Polish Princess Kinga, astronomer Copernicus, writer Goethe and other dignitaries. There are snack bars, a restaurant, a museum and gift shops selling … salt. I wonder if the salt on the French fries was chipped off the wall that afternoon.

A comfortable overnight sleeper train took me to Budapest – a place I visited about ten years ago but on that occasion I had had just a day or two in the city and my only memories and photos from that visit are of Vajdahunyed castle, about ten minutes from my more recent apartment. That visit was a little disappointing as my notes from the time tell me how dull, dirty and disorganised the city was.

If my addled memory serves me, I arrived in Budapest ten years ago after having being turned back at the Croatian/Hungarian border because I did not have a valid visa. So with burly (and aren’t they always so?) border guards standing with hands on Uzis or other form of mass destruction or Hall destruction and glooming at me with their beady eyes (and aren’t they always so?) – I was eventually shunted onto a train going back to Zagreb to go through the process of applying for a scrap of paper that would allow me to enter Hungary for long enough to photograph Vajdahunyed castle … and then to bugger off to Vienna.

How international border protocols have changed in just one decade! On this journey my passport was not been examined by border patrol bods since I arrived in Germany almost seven weeks – and nine countries – ago.

This time I took five or six days in Budapest to allow me to potter about, to go on a day excursion and to do nothing. My hostess, in whose delightful apartment I stayed, had moved out to stay with her boyfriend whose apartment they were renovating. Anna was wonderful with hints on things to do, and with invitations to join her and friends for a meal or to go with her one day to a scenic small town nearby to which she had to drive for business.

On arrival in Pest (Buda is the other side of the Danube but together they make up Budapest) I bought a 72-hour Budapest card that gave free travel on public transport (buses, metro, trolley buses etc), free entry to several museums, free entry to one of the city’s famous bathhouses and even two free walking tours – one on either side of the river. I think it was worth it … although I found that my wanderings were governed by which bathhouse and which museum I could visit gratis, to make the most of the card’s purchase price.

Getting around in the city was very easy. As Anna pointed out, Budapest has the oldest continental metro line. London has the oldest European Underground line, dating from 1863, so Budapest’s 1894 (quite a Johnny-come-lately!) Metro Line 1 is just the Continent’s oldest line. Its tiny yellow cars rattle their way from Mexico Street (near my apartment), past Hero’s Place with its great museums, on to the Opera and so on. The cute little stations are furnished with (now) antique tiles, oak panels and bright copper railings. By contrast, Metro 4 is brand-new and has vast stations with tiled columns looking like Modigliani paintings.

In the old Jewish part of town are – of course – synagogues and kosher pizza restaurants, but also the infamous “Ruins Bars”. Many of the buildings are built around courtyards and have fallen into disrepair, but trendy young things have taken over many of them and created bars and restaurants in the gutted or decaying buildings. I guess their presence will not last long as entrepreneurs will see the opportunities as people start flooding back into the area.

Many of the city’s cream- or yellow- or ochre-painted buildings have a somewhat Florentine or Venetian feel to them. The ground floor of the matriarchal building may house a supermarket, a cigarette shop barred to those under eighteen years of age and with heavy plastic curtains over the door and no windows (alcohol is sold everywhere, but tobacco is tucked away), or a dress shop, but the upper floors have apartments whose arched and curved Gothic or Rococo windows perhaps cast memories back to more glorious times. And visitors don’t need gondolas to navigate the streets.

Or if they do, then they are VERY lost indeed.

I spent one very energetic day on the Buda side of the Danube, clambering up and down trails to visit the Citadel and various monumental and heroic statues, including the graffiti-smeared monument to St Gellert, an early Christian missionary whom the local pagans did not quite accept. Instead, they bundled him into a barrel, nailed down the lid, and gave him a free Zorb Ball ride down the side of Buda Hill and into the beautiful blue (??) Danube. Tourists today pay a lot of money to experience such thrills but I guess they hope for a drier – and a happier – ending.

I was lazy and could not find any pagans to barrel me up the hill, so instead took the funicular railway up to the site of the old Buda castle, and the old village that used to surround it. The area now has lovely town houses … and restaurants … and gift shops … and five-star hotels that now provide accommodation to well-heeled travellers in the Buda Hills Hilton and other hotels. The stately Hotel Gellert with its historic baths is at river level and more accessible. It also provides thirsty travellers with a glorious fountain of spring water in front of its main entrance.

I did not bathe at the Gellert, choosing to go further upstream to the Lukacs Baths, where one can enter either from Frankel Leo Street as I did, or via the Elvis Presley entrance. I did not find out why it was called this. Perhaps the King went there to shed a kilo or ten.  This bathing establish was – like most in Budapest – huge, with beautiful gardens and room after room of treatments and sundry outdoor pools of different sizes, temperatures and chemical content. Unlike many of the baths I have visited, there was no nudity here – bathers even had to wear rubber bathing caps … as well as bathing costumes.

Budapest was buzzing when I was there, as the Hungarian F1 motor race was on, and the Hungarian water polo team was competing in the European championships and tipped to win. Tickets had been sold out for days and Anna was hoping to be able to go to the venue on Margaret Island in the middle of the Danube on the off-chance someone was trying to flog some extra tickets. In any case, Serbia pipped Hungary 12 – 7. Ah well …

In the city centre and on Buda Hill the public squares were filled with stalls selling huge fatty sausages, crusty loaves stuffed with Hungarian goulash, slabs of various meats shoved between chunks of bread, and all sorts of wines and beers (Hungarians seems to like fruit-flavoured wines and beers) while orchestras played or performers sang from temporary stages. Hungarian souvenirs and gifts were on sale everywhere – Hungarian paprika, of course, as well as wooden spoons, wooden garlic crushes, wooden toys and wooden this and that, and folk aprons with elaborate embroidery … and things that looked like solid-wood umbrellas.

I had seen people eating what looked like hollow bread cylinders and found that the “umbrella” things were used to make these. On my return to Chiang Mai, surprisingly, I found that these things were called kurtoshes, and they were being sold in a pedestrian area of my home town. The solid “umbrella” bit has fresh dough wrapped around it in a tight spiral and then the whole thing is slowly twirled over hot coals. The cooked bread is somehow slipped off the brolly and then eaten on the trot. It is probably a little healthier than fairy floss, I guess, and not such a violent colour.

Perhaps it was in honour of the racing and water polo events – or perhaps just coincidentally – but the city was gleaming. St Andrew’s church high on Buda Hill looked as if it had just stepped out from a hot tub, and the white marble and stone of nearby Fishermen’s Bastion was similarly gleaming clean. Hungary’s Parliament House – a splendid Gothic wedding cake of a place – was glowing, and many other buildings in the city had either just been scrubbed or were in the process of getting their short back and sides, or annual grease and oil changes.

I took a day trip to Szekesfehervar – pronounced, I think, something like “Sex Fever”. It is a smallish town about forty-five minutes away by train. As an elderly old coot, and one far past any sexy fevers – I found that for those 65 or older, rail travel in Hungary is free. I bought a ticket to Sexy, and thinking that perhaps some sort of discount was applicable, I zapped the 50% button. The first conductor saw the notation and the fact that I had apparently only paid half price and asked for the supplementary payment … but eventually another conductor looked at my Thai driver’s licence and told me that I should not have paid anything except the “Extra” … whatever that was. On my return journey I asked for the Senior discount and found that the “Extra” was the booking fee of Hungarian Forint 150 (about 70 cents) for the “free” ticket. Great stuff!

Szekesfehervar was pretty disappointing at first – dismal relatively modern apartment blocks surrounded the station – but a short walk away was the old town – pedestrians rule! OK? Many of the cobbled streets were closed to traffic, and dotted with cafes and restaurants, shadowed on either side by nice old churches, houses and commercial buildings. Gardens and fountains seemed to be everywhere, and this place, too, was gleaming … until the walk back to the station and the grey apartment blocks.

My time in Eastern Europe finally ran out and I was not sad to say goodbye to dismal grey buildings – but quite sad to leave an area with such a rich – and bloody – history. Another train took me on a nine-hour journey out of Hungary with smoked salmon and sparkling wine at 150 kmh into Austria … across Austria and its pretty villages and Don Quixotic wind farms, and a traditional Viennese chicken dish with home-made spaetzle and chilled white wine to keep up the spirits … into Germany (meatloaf and beer at 250 kmh) and so to Munich, another of my favourite cities.

How could it not be a favourite place?

I had a lovely lunch near the Ludwig Maximilian University with an old friend, then went on to the Kunsthalle in Theatinerstrasse for a stunning exhibition of works by two early-20th Century German artists. Twelve rooms full of paintings, drawings and etchings by Max Beckman and Otto Dix: two roughly contemporaneous artists with similar but unique styles depicting the war and society of WWI times.

A day of lunches and art galleries – so it just had to be a night of opera. The bare-knuckle fight club match is on my calendar for tomorrow just after the bear baiting with optional audience participation.

I had tried to buy Munich opera tickets before leaving Thailand – but the Bavarian State Opera’s production of Verdi’s The Force of Destiny had even at that stage been sold out for weeks. However, I had seen on earlier visits to Munich, that the front of the opera house was often crowded with people trying to flog off unwanted tickets so I went along hopefully – to find a dozen or so other hopefuls.

For Destiny there were odd tickets being offered here and there, ranging from about AU$20 for a standing room only place at the back of the gods (parachutes provided in case of emergency, and sea-sick tablets for those who suffer from vertigo or impetigo. The theatre staff on follow spots had better views of the action on stage) up to about AU$375 for a slightly better seat, one that was closer to the bar at interval. Eventually I was able to get a so-so ticket – not standing and not within spitting distance of the soprano – but good enough to enjoy the very modern and dramatic production and have change left over for a glass of wine at half time.

And so almost seven weeks of music and art and sun and sangria and dancing with wolves – sorry – pickpockets – is at an end. Tomorrow I fly to Thailand to catch up on my laundry, to eat phad thai again, to resume my diet and exercise programme to get rid of the many kilos these weeks have given me as a very forgettable souvenir … and to start planning the next journey.

Riyadh, anyone?

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  • Words and photographs © Christopher Hall 2014
  • Date of journey: June – August 2014
  • If you enjoyed this story please send the blog address to your friends: http://www.hallomega.com
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