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E-postcards - Page 2

  • Joint fortieths, February 2001

    [archive post]

    51 of my & Jeremy's nearest and dearest converged on the Crooked Billet in deepest Oxfordshire last Sunday night. Low ceilings, warm fires, the darkest red walls in a long room flickering with candles. The young (my nieces at 4 months) and the old (Jeremy's father at 82) the short, the tall, the quiet and the loud and the distinctly other. Such an excited buzz as we walked into the pub. Cava and salmon, kisses and all the birthday wishes. Last minute panics forgotten once we'd got the nameplaces out.

    The excuse was our joint 40th birthdays, and perhaps a chance to make up for all those other celebrations that usually bring together the generations. Was it my imagination or were our welcomes a little reminiscent of a 'receiving line'? Did Spencer really stand in an ante-room clutching a tableplan discretely enquiring 'bride or groom?'.

    Earlier we'd walked up on Swyncombe Down: exercise, misty views and milky sunshine. We sat on the grass eating crisps and chocolate. Marc, Jeremy, Spencer & Piers in tailored dark blue overcoats like middle-aged popstars making a comeback or a clutch of clerics out for a constitutional.

    At the Crooked Billet the presents accumulated at a table close by the fireplace. Unexpected kindnesses of every kind. And a dawning satisfaction - even joy - that these were almost all the people we cared for and that together in all our ways over the last 24 years or more we'd somehow managed to make interwoven lives of richness and meaning.

    The food came promptly without fuss. Plates piled high with oysters; squid rings, avocado, half lobsters. Pheasant in a currant sauce, succulent slices of lamb, sea-bass and half a dozen more.

    And the room filled with the happy conversation - Jeremy's friends and mine mixed and matched. Nan discovered in Al another indexer. Mike and John that they had violins as well as IT and me in common. Sue got on famously with Lawrence and Caddy, demonstrating her voice production technique by ordering 'water!' in her fullest voice. Simon expertly drew Christian out in conversation. Whether through planning or chance all the combinations were a huge success. The Crooked Billet staff said what lovely people were gathered and everyone praised the gorgeous food they served so efficiently and discreetly.

    Little ripples of applause kept breaking through the hum of conversation. Philip the magician made rings disappear and produced the very card we had in mind again and again. There were gasps when he levitated and everyone wanted more. Only Linda managed to get his telephone number.

    I made a little speech and my biggest thrill was when I asked if people were having a good time. In a moment they roared "Yes!" And I forgot to give my mother credit for the most difficult bit and to thank so many for being gold medallists in the sport of waiting-for-David. But I meant what I said about the preciousness of friendship, especially friendship as long-lasting as that between me and Jeremy.

    Before coffee he and I sent two big rockets shooting into the foggy sky. Down the slope in pitch black, sparkling taper to four second fuse, then woosh, a huge bang, and great flowers in the sky.

    After the meal my mother held court in one corner with the lop-sided gravitas of a slightly tipsy magistrate. In another, Jeremy's vicar-cousin Simon found himself among friends and became more and more entertainingly raucous as the evening went on. By the evening's end he was a vision of contentment sitting by the fire bottle-feeding Sarah - Marcel Wagner offered a commentary, urging me on to the joys of nappy changing.

    By 11.30 people were beginning to fade into the foggy mist that made the pub seem even more remote from care. Because of illness Lee & John never got to meet Nan & John, and Rosie's John missed out too. Mark in Holland, Grace in Boston and Sophie on her way to Morocco couldn't make it either. But for us there was birthday cake and more singing and another round at midnight when it was Jeremy's turn to complete his fourth decade.

    What a night it was! What people were there! 24 hours later and the buzz and the specialness of it all is still with me. The pictures I took with the amazing new camera got wiped in an inattentive moment, so this and bright memories of such happiness at the end of a week of joyful celebration will be the reminder.

  • Crete July 2000

    Crete was blissful. Stone built house at the head of a valley in a rough old village high above Paleochora. Sheep drifting on to terrace where we ate in the evenings. Goats' bells in the darkness. Long walks in amazing sunshine with the scent of herbs: wild sage, rosemary and thyme (but no parsley). 

    A pretty disparate group. Gary with painted toenails and a foofy little finger ring was endlessly 'comfortable with his sexuality' and bedded a blonde lawyer called Sara to prove it. Sarah was a Liverpuddlian lifelong hippy with cats that have tried every psychotropic known. We tai chi'd in an olive grove by a stream. Azigores describes itself as a paradise village, but Eden is deserted these days. Ruins all around and two scruffy bars with a very un-reconstructed clientele.

    On Wednesday we walked down the gorge to a deserted beach for a swim. Gary, the course leader and I had marched on ahead and as he wondered out loud about not bothering with clothes I slipped in the water. It was only slightly embarrasing wading out afterwards -without a stitch - once the rest of the group had assembled (fully clothed) on the beach to watch us... 

    On Friday there was a barbecue. A man who'd been brought up in the house where we staying was always around the place. He was poking sticks into the firebox of a great rusting piece of apparatus that evening. A pipe connected with another container and from it ran a thin stream of clear liquid. Firewater! He was making the most astonishingly potent raki and it seemed incredibly churlish of me not to try it. 

    Our meals were vegetarian but on Sunday morning we were woken by the screams of a pig being slaughtered. Later the corpse hung dripping in the doorway of the bar where the owner had been so welcoming the previous evening. 

    She gave us all apples and showed the bread oven she still uses. As a young woman without a dowry she'd embroidered astonishing pictures from local silk as a dowry. Her elderly husband slumped in a vest in the bar. 

    We went our ways with promises of a London reunion. Something very satisfying about cheating the season by flying south at the end of autumn. The effects are just wearing off two weeks later.

  • Granada July 2000

    We left at 1.45 on Monday. Me straight from the university, my briefcase stowed away in a cupboard, still fretting about the rush work only just finished in time. Julian fresh from his time off before starting a new job.

    Got to the airport in time, the flight was on time - whatever was happening? The lady with the placid baby next to me suddenly launched into the story of her uncle and his fifty year love affair with a deck-hand from his private yacht and promised that in Granada we'd have a fine time. We found ourselves in the hire car and on the outskirts of Granada in under two hours. Julian confused the Alhambra Palace with a block of flats but eventually we got to the Generalife Hotel, beside the Alhambra gardens on a hill overlooking the city.

    Heaving with wrinkled German ski-ers après ski-ing to a maudlin disco, the hotel did not promise well. We launched out into the night looking for a square where we were promised tapas just ten minutes walk away. 30 minutes
    later we were holed up in a smoky bar in altogether the wrong part of town. Me eating chorizos off a great wooden board, Julian a more appetising baked potato.

    With just two days in town we were in for a busy schedule: Tuesday the Alhambra, Wednesday the the Arab quarter, Sierra Nevada mountains and the Cathedral area. How to describe the Palace? Boabdil wept when the Spaniards finally forced him out, ending 700 years of Arab rule in Spain. His mother rebuked him for crying like a child for what he could not defend as a man. Great raw red walls top the hillside - like the hull of a vast liner, the prow jutting out over the town. Within the walls a massing of roof lines and everywhere water: fountains playing, still pools, rivulets cooling the road edges.

    Le Corbusier praised the design of the state appartments for their human scale and perfect proportions. In accordance with Islamic law, no representational decoration was allowed, but almost every surface is covered with the most intricate incised plaster work. Delicate filligree patterns twist and turn around the arches and columns, expressing the ordered hierachy held in place by the Islamic state. Arab calligraphy proclaims the omnipotence of Allah in a stylised motif that repeats again and again. Geometric tile patterns line the walls and the ceilings are a mass of repeating sculpted geometic shapes.

    The beauty and perfection of the proportions is hard to describe, but still remembered is the slaughter of two dozen or more young knights: their decapitated heads tossed into a great alabster bowl. In the gardens the mimosa was in bloom, the orange trees were full of fruit and the temperature was around 17 degrees. Dozens of interweaving jets of water made a great roar of sound along a terrace overlooking the palace below. The snow capped Sierra Nevada mountains provided a ravishing backdrop.

    Inside the church built to obliterate the palace mosque by the first Spanish king to re-occupy Granada I was struck by the contrast between the art of the two cultures: Bach blared from a loudspeaker, a garish gilded altar piece with images of the saints, caricatured lessons for the illiterate people.

    After a drink in a hotel built in about 1908 as a tribute to the Alhambra palace we ate in a restaurant empty but for us with a fine view over the city. Restaurants don't open until at least 8.30. We were meticulously served wine by an attractive blonde. "The Maitre de" hovered. The food was pretty dire!

    Next morning we walked down to the town (again) and like the duke of York up the hill again. Walking (or rather climbing) was inevitable since we were at the top of one hill, the centre of the city at the bottom, and the parts we wanted to see were at the top of then next hill.

    Tha arab baths were not (as I fondly imagined) still working. Up the river to a plain building, through the courtyard of the guardian's house and into an emty series of rooms with simple geometric patterns cut in the ceiling the only source of light. Strange to think of the rooms bright with tilework, full of steam, tubby Arab merchants panting in the heat 500 years ago.

    Up through a network of narrow lanes, some buildings barely habitable, great handfuls of electrical cable bunched together loosely snaking from house to house, and signs of arab influence everywhere. Here the tilework on a balcony, there signs of some patterned decoration slowly blurring with the passage of time. St Nicholas' church offers a famous view of the palace - but when we got there the sun was full upon us, the view obscured. We promised to return in the evening.

    We saw the Royal Chapel built to commemorate King Ferdinand and Isabella. Pompous sculpture of reclining figures conceal the simpler sarcophagi Isabella intended as their monument in the crypt below. A sublime van der Weyden tryptych fought for attention with reliquaries and embroidered vestments.

    The narrow streets in the centre of the old town were dirty and traffic choked. We walked the mile and a half back up to the cleaner air and the hotel and took the car into the mountains. At some 3400m Pico de Veletta claims to be reachable by the highest mountain road in Europe. Because of the heavy snow we only got to 2500m, the temperature down by ten degrees, but still in glorious sunshine.

    I chatted to a member of an English film-crew, his face tanned brown from a week making an orange juice commercial. Equally dark-skinned, shaven headed national servicemen skied past us, rifles sticking from their rucksacks. We set the camera to take an auto-timer portrait as we sat on a rock overlooking the ski runs below.

    Back to the town and a mad dash to St Nicholas for the Alhambra at sunset. Crowds of travellers sitting on the wall, while an old woman clacked castanets and screeched cante honto. Some evenings "the green flash" lights up the sky at sunset - a bizarre light shooting up from the horizon as the last rays of the sun disappear. That night we were unlucky.

    Again and again we saw a poem that reminds the traveller how sad it is to leave Granada - cut into a stone on the walls of old fort in the Alhambra or in a fountain within the old caravanseri we saw in the town. Perhaps if I go back...

    That night we ate our last dinner high up in the old arab quarter. Again we were the only ones eating. As we emereged afterwards on to a small square fronted by an old convent church we saw a bizarre cage like structure move slowly in the doorway of the church, supported on the shoulders of several dozen Granadans. In time to mournful music, they shuffled slowly out of the building, huge concrete beams weighing down the steel structure. This was Ash Wednesday and they were practising, as perhaps someone had done for generations, for a processional showing of some great statue.

    We fell into bed, worn out by all our walking and by 10.30 the following morning were back on the road to Malaga airport. A short break, but a time to remember!

  • Ibiza June 2000

    [archive post]

    It began with an apology. I was off to the island of Ibiza “but not the usual Ibiza” – just in case the check-in man confused me with the ‘Ibiza Uncovered’ crowd (as if I ever would). He mimed just the right amount of polite interest, my sky blue yoga mat and rucksack disappeared down the conveyor and two flights and five hours later I was in Dalt Vila – ancient fortified Ibiza town.

    The Phoenicians apparently thought the island had the power to heal; much good it did them when they chose to be buried here in a necropolis facing seawards just beyond the limestone walls of the citadel. The Moors took the Island, then Phillip fortified it and tried to make it part of Spain. The islanders are fiercely independent – even from Formentera nearby, and their own language lingers. The hippies came in the sixties, the tourists in the seventies, and ‘club culture’ arrived in the nineties.

    The island is dust dry today. The last streams dried up years ago and water has to be brought from the mainland and stored in huge concrete cisterns. Giant prickly pears, aloes and other succulents proliferate in the powdery red soil, basking in strong sun that rarely gives way to rain. The crops are olives, almonds, wine and tourists, with fishing continuing mainly as a hobby.

    Dripping I lugged my heavy rucksack up hundreds of steps to get a view of the sea from the fortress walls. Brilliant turquoise water against stark blue sky, rocks shimmering in the heat. Huge cargo ships on the horizon seemed to drift listlessly. An English family were agape at my seeming fitness. They plainly hadn’t encountered the yoga apprentices at Can Am des Puig where I spent the next week.

    The taxi driver was unsure where he was taking me. Right at Sant Mateu pueblo, then left by the blue stones after the vineyard. The directions didn’t mention a half mile climb up a network of precipitous tracks before I got my first sight of the house in a wood of scrubby swaying pines. Godfrey Devereux (or Sri Godfreyi as he was unbelievably described on one hand-out) set up the yoga centre three years ago, in a house built of great lumps of stone with three dry terraces stretching out in the wooded garden beyond it. On the terraces he put up US army bell tents and white teepees and in the furthest corner a large white geodesic dome for yoga practice with a clear wall facing out down the hills to the sea.

    Into the shaded kitchen, stone floor, terracotta walls, introductions and a cup of twig tea, made of some caffeine-free part of the bush and my first encounter with the macrobiotic diet. Imagine: no tea, coffee, booze, chocolate, meat, potatoes, flour, dairy foods, tomatoes, fish or eggs! You might think there wasn’t a lot left fit to eat, but I didn’t miss them (really), eating lots of fruit and vegetables, grains and pulses from large decorated terracotta bowls, chewing carefully as instructed. We ate mostly in the garden, looking out over the countryside to the coast below, sometimes talking hardly at all. The sounds were from the countryside: cockerels, distant barking and the harsh sound of a peacock in Sant Mateu below us.

    I confess to escaping for cool ‘Damm’ beer one night and to eating (without the slightest guilt and with huge enjoyment) several ice-creams and even the occasional tea on afternoon swimming trips. Godfrey’s German wife Anita is easily the most irrepressible person I’ve met. A big voice and a huge laugh that could be heard all over Can Am. They have a wide-eyed daughter with a great mop of bleached blonde hair and a fierce energy that copes easily with the weekly influx of visitors.

    I slept in a green tent cut with slits that made the early morning light shine like stars when a drum sounded the call to 8am practice.

    Improbably enough Buster the Swedish dancer effortlessly twisted himself into the yoga poses. Standing with a leg pulled from one toe out and up to his chest, then his head on the floor looking backwards between his legs. Legs spread, deep bends on one knee with his hands together in a gesture of prayer. Tanned in a tight slip, all lean sinew, his skill was matched by Dylan, a Harvard graduate, his girlfriend Hummaya (after a goddess), Sarah and the other apprentices. All glowed health, clear eyed with an easy energy. I was probably the least experienced among the new arrivals. They included an Akido teacher, a personal fitness trainer, a grad student/masseuse and a teacher of the Alexander Technique. Anglo-Indian Barry had practised for 25 years and had never encountered teaching so precise and effective.

    Godfrey’s instruction ranged from the sensations to be found in one finger to the spiritual aims of yoga (which means unity, oneness). Freedom from desire, from the encumbrances of the past, from inconsequential thoughts and from interpretations projected on to others made a kind of blissful contentment possible. In meditation after the three hour sessions people burst into tears: great racking sobs as something he’d said particularly touched them. The concentration was intense and as the sun grew stronger the air was steamy.

    On all but two nights when there was torrential rain I drifted into sleep easily, lulled by wind in the pines, needles dropping gently on to the canvas.

    Three of us hired a car and made afternoon trips to beaches and villages around the island. Irridescently orange and large transparent jellyfish made swimming difficult at several beaches, and we went several times to naturist Agua Blanca where great rollers crashed on to a white shore with cliffs behind.

    One afternoon I sat and read Harry Potter in the shade of a fisherman’s boat shelter. A frenchwoman who said she was “waiting for Buddha-hood” lent me her goggles - in the meanwhile - and I drifted in rocky pools gazing down at brightly coloured fish in the brilliantly clear water.

    Another day I walked for an hour down the hill from Can Am, following a zig-zagging path through woods and fields, past the view I’d put on the centre’s brochure cover (since I swapped design work for the trip) and finally down a sandy boulder strewn cliff path to a perfect rocky bay. I paddled lazily around some rocks at such ease in the warm-cool water. Just half an hour later I climbed back up to Can Am for a (punctual!) evening practice.

    Swathes of the Ibizan coastline has been spoilt by 70s hotel blocks – great tiered slabs of concrete slapped against the hillsides. In one town we saw the ‘hippy market’. It’s now an official tourist attraction with its own T-shirts and hundreds of stalls selling everything batiked, folksy and brightly coloured. I bought a Kashmiri silver bracelet of the kind I’d meant to find in India as a reminder of my trip there.

    On Ibiza a few of the Englishman abroad lived up to their reputation for beery swagger, beetroot colour and loudness, but most of the visitors were relaxed families, from all around Europe. We made one trip to Ibiza town at night, re-tracing my steps the first hot afternoon. Subtle lighting showed our way up the rampart steps and from a look-out we could hear the bats’ calls as they circled above us. Gay men seemed to be everywhere in the town that night: in the Calle des Virgens, where the bars are concentrated, cruising in the shadows at the foot of the city walls, and relaxing in the Plaza da Villa inside the walls. Barry and Mandy said they saw Peter Stringfellow decorated with an appropriately juvenile bimbette in the café A la Olivia: but that was the closest I got to the Ibiza club scene.

    I left on Saturday with a mixture of relief and a kind of anxious sadness. Sad to leave people I’d got to know and anxious that if I were to take away anything lasting from the trip it would need dedication and discipline I’m not sure I possess. I’ll keep in touch with several of them, I’m sure, and some are already making plans for further visits this autumn.

    On the plane I got chatting to (or was chatted to, for once) a young Spaniard from Barcelona who was part of a performance group that had just given a show in Ibiza. He asked me to read him Baudelaire (in French) and said I should re-arrange my onward flight to stay with him in his flat in the city with 3m high ceilings and a trapeze. A futurist arts festival opens there and his show (about fashion and morality) was to be repeated. Maybe I was insufficiently freed from my desires and projections, perhaps I was just keen to be back, but I thanked him and said I had to travel home…

  • India, April 2000

    [archive post]

    I thought I would write while I had some time, here at A's in Calcutta.

    This is an altogether remarkable house. It was built by four great uncles who belonged to the Brahmo reformist sect. The family has lived here ever since. A Nobel prize winning economist is a distant relation. A cream 3-storey 'L' shaped building put up in the 1920s where the brothers and their families could live and worship together. A's parents live on the ground floor and from his room I can look out across the verandah to a small garden lush with tropical plants. Two giant palms stand at the back of the garden. They were planted by the brothers and a cheese plant has climbed to the very top of one of them. Inside the rooms are cool and shaded, with breezes from the overhead fan and through open windows on two sides. Outside the heat has been fierce and steamy, quite different from the dryness of Delhi during my 10 day tour of the capital, Jaipur and Agra.

    The rooms are furnished with solid dark furniture that has been here since the house was built. This has long been a literary family and most rooms are furnished with high glassed-in bookcases filled with English and Bengali texts. The electrical wiring is authentically primitive, encased in dark timber trunking which runs all around the rooms and terminates in a switchboard with a battery of circular Bakelite switches.

    In one dark, cool high-ceilinged room there is a harmonium. This is the sitting room and during the day-time it is used only to receive occasional unfamiliar or unwelcome visitors. At night, Shondha the cook sleeps on the floor under a mosquito net strung from the walls and when we come in the evenings we have had to tip-toe past her curled up under the net as it gently ripples under the breeze from the overhead fan. Twice a day she has prepared Bengali specialities for us. She smiles shyly, as she spoons out spiced okra and aubergines and curd with jaggery. As dusk falls she puts up a huge tent-like mosquito net over A's parent's bed. They are away in Delhi for a family funeral and because of the Holi festival the house is unusually quiet: several other servants have returned to their villages. Upstairs live maiden aunts, cousins and uncles.

    During the festival crowds jostled and shouted in the street, covering each other with purple, blue and green powder while I spent the afternoon resting. All Indian cities seem to be constantly noisy, the streets a shifting mass of people and vehicles. Horns hoot madly and heavy lorries and ancient buses vent the fume which settles in a choking cloud wherever there is traffic.

    But Ballygunj Place is a haven from all that. Even so I'm woken at dawn by the sound of neighbours nosily clearing their throats. I can hear the gull-like call of young kites and the sharp cries of the fierce looking crows which seem to be innumerable in the city. Tradesmen visit early and from their cries I can follow the path of street hawkers as they approach and then move away from the house. During the day bells are rung and conch shells sound as people do their puja. Morning is the coolest time of the day, but more than once I've lingered too long as the sun grew hotter and hotter until it was in the 80s when I set out by taxi and metro to visit the sights.

    Ballygunj is a middle class area but even so the streets are home to the innumerable poor. I see men in dhotis washing themselves all over from hand pumps at the roadside. In a shack next to a modern apartment block live the two men to whom Shonda takes the ironing. In little cubicles at knee height people crouch by charcoal stoves cooking up sweets like rasgool and the savouries which are sold for a few rupees in a an open box made out of thick leaves stitched together. Once I saw a limbless man roll with astonishing grace on the baking, filthy tarmac, his hand reaching out for alms and a strangely beatific look on his face.

    The taxis are ancient Ambassadors, rounded and high like a Morris Oxford. For about 25p they take us on the 15 minute ride to the metro which is the city's pride. The single line is the only one in all India and it runs due north from here to the centre of town. The metro was Russian designed: the dully lit pillared platforms are almost free of crowds, the only sound the roar of overhead fans which cool me. For A, back in India for less than six months after ten years in England, it's a womb-like shelter from the chaos above.

    Today I went to the 'marble palace'. For a few Rupees a guide in a cream uniform showed me around a huge decaying mansion in a grotesquely encrusted neo-classical style. I was led in bare feet cool on Carrera marble through room after gloomy room around a large rectangular courtyard, its white painted walls decorated with swags of green Della Robbia style ornamentation. A young member of the family of Jewish Indian goldsmiths which built the house 200 years ago reclined elegantly in a blue green sari on a shaded bench in the centre of the courtyard. Statues in glass cases lined the vast ballroom. Two huge dusty Belgian mirrors at either end reflected back the room's immensity, the ceiling jostling with unused chandeliers. This was a Michelangelo and that a Rubens and they all looked like poor copies.

    In the garden boys bathed in a green pool across from a circular gazebo set against scarlet red blooms. The palace entranced me. It must be quite the greatest monument to a rich man's ghastly good taste I've ever seen. Afterwards I struggled to Rabindranath Tagore's house, where yellowing captions and dozens of fading family photos told me next to nothing about the leader of the Bengali cultural renaissance.


    The tour to Rajasthan was utterly gorgeous - I was one male among 12 women, Including the most fragile-looking Japanese girl who travelled with me to Calcutta to work a week at Mother Theresa's. The Taj at dawn has to be seen to be believed - it floats above a marble platform, the minarets stroked first by orange then gold light till the whole facade glows.

    We took elephants to the Amber Fort, where an Indian family invited me to join them at lunch and two chatty (young) boys asked me to take their photo. We visited a bird sanctuary with the most incredible wildlife - kingfishers almost the size of hens of the most intense blue. In Jaipur I had a virtual suite of rooms high in a tower, with steps to a turret with a private view of the city. Late one night I chatted for hours with the manager about Hinduism, the caste system and Gandhi's legacy.

    We saw the abandoned palace at Fatephur Sikri where the decoration combines Hindu, Moslem and Christian symbolism - including the swastik, symbol of luck. I took a photo of our guide, who had been there 48 years.

    At Agra we went to the 'Palace of the Winds' - a sheer facade of obscured windows from which the Maharajah's harem could see without being seen. We saw the giant silver vessels the Maharajah made to take sacred Ganga water to England - so afraid was of English impurities.

    And so many other things!

    Back home, the vicar asked with a kind of well-meaning vicarish concern "how was India?" - no doubt thinking of how I'd coped with the deprivation, the heat, the pollution.

    I was gripped with an awful temptation to tell him - that A had arranged an evening for a quartet of what I suppose they'd call roast beef queens (mirroring our curry queens) where I was treated like a fascinating exotic. One stroked my hand feverishly muttering "you're so white" the other urgently requested I join him at a cruising place and offered nameless orgies. The third contented himself with mild interference with my person and serenaded me with Rags about being gay in Calcutta. Needless to say the vicar would be pleased to hear I resisted these temptations (more or less!)

  • Budapest

    [archive post] Got back from Budapest, would you believe, on Sunday night. Five of us had an altogether enjoyable time. The itinerary included candlelit meals in a lakeside restaurant, Wagner opera for L1.50, and two hours in an astonishing 400 year old Turkish bath - wearing nothing but a pseudo masonic apron which partly covered the privates but left the hindquarters quite exposed.

    It's nowhere near as picturesque as Prague, but somehow more real. The people friendlier. The National Gallery is on Heroes' Square where we saw some fine Spanish paintings. Decorated Art Nouveau buildings characterise the city in a style they are pleased to call "Eclectic" which seems to mean pretty well anything the architect took a fancy to could be incorporated into the building.

    The Rudas baths is at the foot of Gellert hill, close by the statue of 'the popular queen' Queen Mary. Time Out said it was the loveliest, the most ancient, and had the cleanest water. It's quite gloomy inside: tiny star shaped windows in the domed roof send light streaming down on to the pool of hot spa water below. Five smaller pools cluster round the central one, containing water of varying temperatures. Water pours everywhere: from carved spouts into the pool and from great rusted taps. The room is filled with a great hub-ubb of conversation. Young bodies and old bodies cluster round the edge of the pools, disappearing from time to time into the steam room or the saunas which vary in temperature from hot to oven roasting. I chatted to a fellow who turned out to be assistant to the cultural attaché at a certain French speaking embassy. It was a curious feeling: we spoke in French about music. Suddenly (as his foot stroked mine) he asked me back to his house. Perhaps it would have been a kind of adventure. But I said no. In a side room off the main spa pool aimable masseurs pummel their victims off-handedly. I lay on a foam mat on a sloping aluminium table (much like the ones you see in dissecting rooms) and relaxed utterly.

    With minutes to spare we dashed over Elizabeth bridge into the town for the Valkyrie. The opera house is gliterry and magnificent - we were high up 'in the gods' on the third balcony. My first experience of Wagner, the company was under-rehearsed there were some stunning moments. Wherever we went not having much German - which is the main language apart from Magyar - was a bit of problem. From the sublime to the ridiculous - we were so starved after the opera we went into Macdonalds on Moscow Square (even M&S and Tescos are there now). I meant to order 2 No. 5s but somehow ended up with a tray of 5 No. 2s (if you see what I mean)... Also went to an enjoyable Mozart concert at the elaborate green and silver-gold art nouveau music academy. More French chat as a lady befriended me and pointed out her dashing son and his girlfriend.

    More than once we and ate far more scrumptiously gooey cream cakes than was good for us. We trekked out to a one-time monastery where they had an astonishing collection of 19th century printing equipment which I attempted to demonstrate, much to the consternation of the guard. The museum also houses a bizarre collection of womens underwear through the 20th century which would have had the building's former inhabitants in quite a tizz. And there are baboushkas still in Hungary - mostly in the museums, homely bodies in woollen stockings waiting to pounce if you so much as breathe over their precious glass cases.

    On the last day I left the others to a cable car ride in the Buda Hills to bathe at the Gellert Hotel In its heyday this magnificent place was popular with European high society. My valuables were locked in a safe deposit box and an elaborate ritual with keys locked up my clothes but my (hired) swimming costume was stolen when I spent some time in the spa. An ancient gentleman made a pass at me in the steam room, waving at me in the strange two-handed Hungarian way...

    We wandered round the Lechner's museum of applied art - a dazzling white moorish temple to Hungarian 19th century taste. At a quarter to five we realised we were due back at the hotel for the 7.30 flight home. William and Peter were fuming more or less aimably in the minibus outside. By 10.30 we were home, me clutching cherry brandy chocolates and Hungarian merlot, with a stash of memories of a busy but hugely enjoyable few days.

  • Madeira June 1998

    Back on Monday from Madeira: three days walking the levadas - the irrigation channels that cling to the Madeiran hillsides - and three days just pottering around. Bananas grow everywhere along with lots of other exotic fruit: custard apples, mangoes and the like.

    The levadas are stunning. The smell of mimosa and eucalyptus. Agapanthus and a dozen other exotica. The quiet and the views!  
    It did seem as though we were in something of a floating old people's home - most of the hotel guests were 50+ and willingly shephereded to tour buses for 'exciting' excursions every day. The hotel manager offered a jacketted reception and we could play bridge on Thursday night.

    We avoided all that (it was my first time on a proper package holiday) and did our own thing - local buses up into the hills, swim in the 30's style lido mid-morning, then got our own breakfast on the lawn. We were self-catering in a much more attractive building than the rest of the hotel (no matter how many stars it has). We also went to a mildly dire recital of piano duets given by two hatchet faced Hungarians.

    Restaurant food was pretty awful (tho we were on a budget). They practise the unsubtle art of vegetable massacre every evening in the Funchal kitchens. Broccoli and spuds boiled beyond recognition to an amorphous, mushy pulp. The main fish comes from very deep down - the scabbard is an ugly looking brute with one great glassy eye that stares up at you from the fishmonger's slab.  
    The only relief came in a restaurant where the vegetables where treated with proper respect. To the accompaniment of great bunches of flowers and Albinoni.

    We had one meal on a restaurant boat by the harbour that used to be owned by the Beatles. We were also unceremoniously chucked out of a desperately posh hotel - Reids - because I was wearing (smart) sandals and Marc brown corduroy trousers. Later we ate 'english cake' - Madeira cake - best covered in jam - at our hotel - 'your home from home' as they excruciatingly style themselves. 

    In the market there is a great bustle of fruit and veg, huge red huge hunks of tuna, and the scabbard fish. I bought one of the peculiar coarse wool mountain balaclavas the locals still wear. Many are still very poor - in spite of the million of EU money spent on roads and the like. And on Sunday we went to an almost medieval country fair in a village high in the hills. 

    We went round the Madeiran wine cellars, walked to the botanic gardens and were picturesquely pushed in a kind of snowless sledge down the hill from Monte by two gnarled old gents old enough to be our fathers.