…like sapphires in colour, only that it is paler and more closely resembles the tint of the water near the sea-shore in appearance.
(Pliny the Elder: Natural History, XXXVII.56)
It is found in the countries that lie at the back of India, among the Phycari, namely, who inhabit Mount Caucasus, the Sacæ, and the Dahæ. It is remarkable for its size, but is covered with holes and full of extraneous matter; that, however, which is found in Carmania is of a finer quality, and far superior. In both cases, however, it is only amid frozen and inaccessible rocks that it is found, protruding from the surface, like an eye in appearance, and slightly adhering to the rock; not as though it formed an integral part of it, but with all the appearance of having been attached to it. People so habituated as they are to riding on horseback, cannot find the energy and dexterity requisite for climbing the rocks to obtain the stones, while, at the same time, they are quite terrified at the danger of doing so. Hence it is, that they attack the stones with slings from a distance, and so bring them down, moss and all. It is with this stone that the people pay their tribute, and this the rich look upon as their most graceful ornament for the neck. This constitutes the whole of their wealth, with some, and it is their chief glory to recount how many of these stones they have brought down from the mountain heights since the days of their childhood. Their success, however, is extremely variable; for while some, at the very first throw, have brought down remarkably fine specimens, many have arrived at old age without obtaining any.
Such is the method of procuring these stones; their form being given them by cutting, a thing that is easily effected. The best of them have just the colour of smaragdus, a thing that proves that the most pleasing property in them is one that belongs of right to another stone. Their beauty is heightened by setting them in gold, and there is no stone to which the contrast of the gold is more becoming. The finest of them lose their colour by coming in contact with oil, unguents, or undiluted wine even; whereas those of a poorer quality preserve their colour better. There is no stone, too, that is more easily counterfeited in glass. Some writers say, that this stone is to be found in Arabia also, in the nest of the bird known as the “melancoryphus.”
I just came home from home. The experience was slightly unnerving in both directions (as usual). To begin with, there was the inevitable confusion of languages: while at home, I tended to do it all wrong. I spoke Hungarian to Young Friend of the Elephants and English to my father, not to mention when I creatively mixed the two languages to the changing room attendant in the thermal baths. To end with, back home there was the immigration officer at Heathrow who asked cunning questions to find out if I was trafficking my child into the country to be some sort of a domestic slave. (She’s washing up after dinner right now but don’t tell that to the border police.)
Home vs Home
I enjoyed being at home. It’s true I no longer remember all the names of the smaller streets in Budapest but I’m still capable of making creative public transport choices on the run to halve the time needed to get wherever I’m running late for; I know whether it’s best to get on the front or the back of the tram; whether the metro carriage door will open on the left or on the right at the next stop; I know that only an idiot or a foreigner takes the trolleybus down Dohány utca when in a hurry. Back here at home on the other hand I can’t do any of these things without consulting a map or an app on my phone first and I get lost every time I emerge from under ground because the traffic is on the WRONG side of the road and the Thames can’t be trusted to keep straight, making it wholly useless as a point of reference.
By the way: This, to the best of my knowledge, is not a travel blog (yet?) but right now I’m going to treat you to a travel post and you’re going to suffer it. If it inspires you to visit one of the most lovable and liveable cities in Europe, if not the world, good for you.
Why Vienna is Not the Most Liveable City in the World (Or a Short Introduction to the Capitals of Central Europe)
Budapest doesn’t even make it on Mercer’s Quality of Living Ranking but Mercer’s have ranked Vienna top city for liveability for 5 years running, which should tell you two things:
Central Europe rocks
Vienna is boring (read safe, law-abiding and prosperous)
Number 1 needs no explanation. Central-Europe has three great capitals, neither more, nor less – don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. I know all three and can explain to you the similarities and differences between them in one short paragraph:
Vienna, Budapest and Prague (which, BTW, also doesn’t make Mercer’s top n) share architecture and the Central-European mindset. Vienna and Prague share being small. Prague and Budapest share being the poor relations to prosperous Vienna. Vienna and Budapest share the River Danube… except Mr Danube shrugs his shoulders at the respectable and well-preserved Aunt Vienna to profess love to the spirited and beautiful Miss Budapest in her ragged jeans instead.
As for number 2: Budapest is no longer living the wild-west era as she did in the 1990s after the fall of communism when Russian maffias were attempting to carve up the city amongst themselves, shooting each other up in McDonald’s and using car bombs with gusto… nevertheless Budapest is anything but boring, law-abiding, or prosperous. On the plus side, it’s definitely safe.
The truth is Central-Europe is not so much a place as a mindset and you can call on well-known clichés like Strauss, coffee houses, Freud, faded grandeur and world-weary decadence to set the scene.
Why Live like a Local When You’re on Holiday?
Well, the answer to this one is pretty simple: wherever you go, if you want to get the best out of the place, you’ve got to live like a local. It’s fundamental. But in a liveable & lovable city like Budapest is the only way to carry on.
How to Live like a Local in Budapest (Winter Edition)
Rent a flat:
Forget the hotels. Hotels in Budapest suck. They do look fancy on the outside and have impressive entrance halls but once you’re in the room, you could be anywhere in the world. So rent a flat: it’s cheaper and you can live like a local. Please yourself with a flat in a 19th century block of tenements with open air corridors around an inner courtyard in the city centre or a villa up in the leafy hills of Buda overlooking the Danube and the city – but take a flat.
Use the public transport:
Budapest has one that actually works and is dirt-cheap, even by the wallets of the locals. For less than ten thousand Forints (£27), you can get a monthly pass that will transport you everywhere by nearly everything that moves whether metro, the ‘little underground’, buses, trams, trolleybuses or the cogwheel railway… The only things you can’t use the pass to travel by are rickshaws, taxis, the Castle Hill Funicular, the chair lift or boats.
Incidentally, the so-called ‘little underground’ is only the second underground in the entire world (the first was built in London), and the first on the Continent. Have a look in the Underground Museum in the subway of Deák tér metro station.
Relax in the baths:
Budapest sits on top of more than a hundred thermal springs and the one good thing Hungarians did get from the Turks is the idea of building baths on them. (If you think visiting a bath house is no big deal, come to London and try to enjoy the dirty and overcrowded municipal swimming pools.) Visit one of the 16th century Turkish bath houses from where under-14s are banned in the interest of peace and quiet or the Art Nouveau palace attached to Hotel Gellért – or anything in between from sport pools to spas.
In winter, go for the outdoor pools of the Neo-Baroque Széchenyi Baths in City Park, where you can relax in pools decorated with statues while the steam off the water swirls over the surface and people play chess in the pool – all this in temperatures below zero (with snow by the poolside if you’re lucky).
Budapest is one of the most photogenic cities in the world and offers plenty to challenge photographers, whether professionals or amateurs. Go up to the one of the numerous hills of Buda to enjoy unrivalled views across the River Danube to Pest: the best view is from Gellért Hill, from where you can see Buda Castle, the Parliament across the Danube and the Chain Bridge (city’s signature bridge) but the views from Buda Castle are not far behind. Shoot the scenic ruins in Margit Island or the reflections of Fisherman’s Bastion in the plate glass of Hotel Hilton. Keep an eye for the fine architectural details of the numerous 19th century palaces or the gilded ceilings of sumptuous coffee houses… Capture street life.
The Ice Rink in City Park in Budapest is the biggest outdoor ice-rink in Europe – in surroundings that make the pop-up rink in the courtyard of Somerset House look like a beggar’s choice: Vajdahunyad Castle on one side and Heroes’ Square on the other. Not to mention that for the equivalent of a paltry £5 you can skate for four hours (if you’ve got the stamina). Go in the evening when the ice sparkles blinding white under the floodlights and the loudspeakers boom out the latest hits or popular classical music.
Eat a chimney cake:
Chimney cake – kürtős kalács – is a long cylindrical shaped cake sold at street stands. It’s a sweet raised dough cooked on a wooden spit over charcoals and then rolled in sugar, ground walnut or cinnamon. It warms you up and it fills you up.
Warm up in the cafés:
There are posh cafés and poor man’s cafés and everything in between and they are all over town. Although the famed Central-European coffee house tradition is not what it used to be when writers and journalists used to sit and smoke and drink espresso in the cafés all day long writing witty leading articles, moody novels and decadent poetry, a café is still the place to be whenever you’re tired from traipsing round or need to warm up. For the price of a cup of tea you can sit around all afternoon with a newspaper (some cafés still provide you with a selection) or your book and nobody will bat an eyelid. In some cafés you can have breakfast, lunch and dinner; in others it’s tea/coffee and cakes only. If you want something truly mind-blowing, go the New York Café – all gold, mirrors, live music and hot lemonade… and no locals (they can’t afford it).
In certain countries, like England, schools provide all, including even pencils and exercise books. What the schools provide, perhaps understandably, is cheap and depressing. In Hungary, children are expected to provide their own text books, exercise books and pens – as a consequence, the selection is impressive. When it comes to exercise books, a certain Italian company (they’re welcome to pay me for naming them) rules supreme: choose between books with stunning city-scapes, cute animals or the latest Star War heroes or buy pens and pencils with all kinds of sparkling, dangling, carved or printed decorations to treat your kids (or yourself).
Learn to speak a couple of words in Hungarian:
Hungarian might be one of the most difficult languages in the world but a couple of words is not beyond you. Any efforts will be much appreciated by the locals who are fully conscious of the obscurity of their language, which stands alone in Central Europe in a sea of Slavic and Germanic languages. (Hungarian is not even an Indo-European language and is only related to Finnish and Estonian.)
Shop in the plazas:
Budapest is hot in summer and cold in winter – which is why the locals embraced the idea of air-conditioned shopping malls wholeheartedly in the 1990s. The plazas of Budapest are like every other shopping mall in the world except they boast rooftop gardens, waterfalls, exhibitions, aquariums, mammoth statues and god-knows-what-else, all to keep the shoppers indoors.
Go to the theatre or a concert:
Although your Hungarian might be lacking, Budapest also offers theatre in English or in Hungarian with English surtitles. If all else fails, there’s the opera, a building pretty enough to draw a good secondary income from tours for tourists during the day. Not to mention classical music: this is the city of Liszt and Bartók after all!
The other day, reading a history of Spain by Juan Eslava Galán, I came across the following paragraph:
Spain had become the defender of the honour of God. Theologians and thinkers (not so many of these latter) became convinced that Spain and God were united in a pact. God promoted Spain to the rank of the chosen people, protected her and granted her riches and power (the Americas) in exchange for which Spain acted as his armed arm on Earth, champion of the true faith against the error of the Protestants and the Turks.
España se había erigido en defensora del honor de Dios. Teólogos y pensadores (de estos hubo menos) llegaron al convencimiento de que España y Dios estaban unidos por un pacto. Dios la había promocionado al rango de pueblo elegido, la protegía y le otorgaba riquezas y poder (las Américas) a cambio de que ella ejerciese como su brazo armado en la Tierra, paladín de la fe verdadera contra el error de protestantes y turcos.
This notion of the pact with God and the chosen people put me strongly in mind of the Hun-Hungarian legends which I read as a child.
I first heard this evocative phrase in a history class at university many years ago but in certain countries (the English and the Spanish can raise their hands here) it’s pretty well-known. And I don’t know about you but it makes me think of ships ploughing the oceans, armies marching and merchants haggling over exotic goods. I think of kings whose word was law over diverse lands, of gold and glory and of a confusion of languages to equal that of Babel. In fact, in my mind I can see the big globe in the library of the Escorial, turning slowly….
He oído esta frase evocador en una clase de historia en la universidad hace muchos años pero en ciertas países (los españoles y los ingleses pueden levantar las manos aquí) es bastante bien conocida. No sé nada de ti, pero me hace pensar en barcos cruzando el mar, ejercitos en marcha y comerciantes regateando mercancías exóticos. Pienso en reyes cuyos palabras eran la ley en tierras distintas, en oro y gloria, y además en una confusión de idiomas igual que la de Babel. De hecho, mentalmente veo el gran globo en la biblioteca de El Escorial, girando despacio…
In the early 19th century, several English poets, among them Lord Byron, Walter Scott¹ and the poet laureate Robert Southey, were inspired by old Spanish historical ballads. Someday I will explore this topic in more detail but today, I’m merely sharing an excerpt from a ballad known as The Defeat of King Roderick.
A principios del siglo XIX, varios poetas ingleses, entre ellos Lord Byron, Walter Scott¹ y Robert Southey, eran inspirados por viejas baladas históricas españolas. Algún día voy a explorar este tema con más detalle pero hoy sólo estoy compartiendo un extracto de una balada conocida como La Derrota de Don Rodrigo (Los huestes de don Rodrigo).
Today I’m going to depart a little from the usual topics to share instead some photos of the Queen’s House in Greenwich – built by one of England’s greatest architects, Inigo Jones. If you wonder why we’re looking at an English building on Mediterranean Monday, it’s because:
The Queen’s House is the first pure, classical, Italianate building in England – which to English eyes at the time must have looked shockingly foreign
Inigo Jones was heavily influenced by the classical architecture he saw in Italy in 1613-14, and in particular by the Italian architect Andrea Palladio
The Queen’s House in Greenwich is one of those buildings that I walked past dozens of times each year and never once entered, despite being a member in the Maritime Museum and despite the entry being free in any case. There is so much to see in Greenwich that the Queen’s House always ended up bypassed. I finally went in two weeks ago – to see the so-called Armada portrait of Queen Elizabeth I that the museum had recently acquired and which was about to disappear into a conservator’s workshop for the near future. The building is so stunning I can’t believe I ignored it for years – don’t miss it if you ever visit Greenwich!
Over a year ago I read an article by Mario Vargas Llosa, who was at the time engaged in re-reading War and Peace by Tolstoy. It was so damnably well-written that not only it made me re-read War and Peace myself but it also made me to read Mario Vargas Llosa.
El año pasado leí un artículo por Mario Vargas Llosa (enlace al final del post), quien en aquel momento se dedicaba a releer la Guerra y paz de Tolstói. Y estaba tan condenadamente bien escrito, que no sólo me causó volver a leer Guerra y paz, sino también me animó leer el proprio Mario Vargas Llosa.
My spirit is too weak – mortality
Weighs heavily on me like unwilling sleep,
And each imagined pinnacle and steep
Of godlike hardship tells me I must die
Like a sick eagle looking at the sky.
Yet ’tis a gentle luxury to weep
That I have not the cloudy winds to keep
Fresh for the opening of the morning’s eye.
Such dim-conceived glories of the brain
Bring round the heart an undescribable feud;
So do these wonders a most dizzy pain,
That mingles Grecian grandeur with the rude
Wasting of old time – with a billowy main –
A sun – a shadow of a magnitude.
(On Seeing the Elgin Marbles by John Keats)
I have to say it threw me a bit. Not quite as easy as “Then I felt like some watcher of the skies / When a new planet swims into his ken” (On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer also by John Keats). In fact, after much mulling over what some of the phrases actually meant, I had to seek enlightment from Mr Anglo-Saxonist who upon reading it pronounced that it was s**t poem and there was no need to rack my brains about what it meant. (He particularly objected to the sick eagle.) Well, I wouldn’t go quite as far but I have to agree: not one of Keats’s best. Nevertheless I do like the last few lines, in particular:
… mingles Grecian grandeur with the rude
Wasting of old time…
Which is why today we’re going to talk about some Greek grandeur and the rude wasting of old time.
In the past week I’ve been engaged in looking at my statistics… And since the blog moved from being self-hosted to wordpress.com during the year, I had to collate the statistics manually, a task during which I found myself evaluating the pros and cons of…
Minus 55 degrees, zero visibility and a raging snowstorm. Nobody at Halley Station should be outside under these circumstances but the station doctor has just discovered that the cold weather gear of one of the scientists is missing from the boot room and according to the sign-in board he has gone to the met tower. Only a hundred metres’ walk but in this weather that’s a lot – and nobody has seen the man all afternoon. Besides, he’s not the meteorologist, so what was he doing there? Perhaps it’s time to get worried!
Last year I borrowed the title of this well-known spaghetti western of my childhood for an end-of-year post, choosing a book for each category. I don’t see why I shouldn’t cast a look back at this year’s reading and do so again… (And I hope you appreciate that I’m sparing you an embedding of Ennio Morricone’s theme tune to play in the background while you’re reading this!)